What Causes Electric Shock: First Aid101

A study shows about 10,000 people die due to electric shocks in the USA. In this article, we will discuss what causes electric shock and its symptoms, effect, treatment, and prevention.

What is Electric Shock

An electric shock is the flow of electrical energy from sources like a frayed cord through some or whole part of your body resulting in shock.

When one gets in contact with a source of electrical energy like a frayed cord or downed power line the electrical energy flow through our body which may cause serious damage. The damage from electric shock could range from no fatality at all to serious damage in internal and external tissues resulting in organ damage or even death.

What Causes electric shock?

People of adolescent age or adults who are at higher risk of high voltage shock are prone to high voltage shock due to curiosity or impish experiments and also as an occupational hazard. Data shows that about 1,000 people in the United States expire every year due to electrocution. Most of the deaths are occupational. However, there are some other causes also which are discussed below.

•         Downed power lines

•         Struck by lightning

•         Electric Appliances

•         Electric weapons,

•         Household machinery

•         Overloaded Electrical Outlets

•         Putting fingers in an electrical socket

•         Touching of frayed electrical cords

•         Electrical machinery with the contact of water

•         Damaged or wrong connection of household wires

Though shocks from household machinery are usually not that complicated, these can lead to serious injuries if a baby keeps the cord on the mouth.

The severity of electric shock depends upon different factors like:

•         High Voltage

•         Length of exposure

•         Individual’s overall health

•         Electricity moving through the body

•         Type of current exposure; AC is usually more dangerous than DC. Alternative current when passes through the body cause spasms in muscles which make the electric source harder to drop.

what causes electric shock
Fig1: Causes Of Electric Shock

Symptoms of Electric Shock

The symptom of electric shock generally depends on severity.  Symptoms caused by touching a frayed kitchen appliance cord are usually much less severe than those caused by higher-voltage shocks from sources such as power lines or lightning. There are some typical symptoms of electric shock which include:

•         Lack of consciousness

•         Breathing difficulty or Irregularity sometimes no breathing at all

•         Weak pulse

•         Burns typically at the entrance of electricity in the body and also at the exit of the body.

•         Muscle spasms

•         Numbness or tingling

•         Headache

•         Problems with vision or hearing

•         Seizures

•         Irregular heartbeat

•         Cardiac arrest

Electric shocks sometimes can result in compartment syndrome. In this condition, limbs appear to swell which is due to muscle damage. This will later lead to constriction of arteries resulting later in serious health problems.

 Since symptoms of compartment syndrome may not be observed so medical examination is very important after any electric shock. Therefore even after no medical complication, the individual should be kept under observation.

Sometimes secondary injuries could also take place. When an individual gets an electric shock he may respond by jerking away and this may cause imbalance and cripple other parts of the body.

Read also: D-Dimer Test Information – What are Uses, Risk, & Results

Effects of Electric Shock

There are generally four main types of injuries due to electric shock.

• Flash: Injury due to flash is usually cursory burns. This type of current cannot enter through the skin. This current is a type of electrical explosion and the superficial burns are due to the heat of the flash.

• Flame: These types of injuries take place when the arc of the flash causes one’s cloth to flare up. Here current may or may not enter the skin.

• Lightning: electric shock due to lightning can penetrate the skin and flow through a person’s body. These electric shocks consist of high voltage therefore may cause serious types of injuries.

• True Injury: True injury due to electric shock is because of the direct connection of part of a circuit and the electricity easily enters and exits the skin causing burn at the point of entry.

Depending upon the injury types and severity there are generally two types of effects.

Short term effects

The immediate effects include the following conditions:

•  Burns

•  Irregular heartbeat

•  Seizures

•  Tingling or prickling sensations

•   Loss of consciousness

•  Headaches

•  Severe injuries of short-term effects include coma, heart attack, or respiratory arrest

In some cases, no severe injury or physical injury is observed whereas in some cases people may complain of relentless pain which may be due to tissue damage. If any serious complaints or injuries are not observed within 24-48 hours of electric shock these people won’t have many complaints as above.

Long-term effects

Long-term effects may include different complications which include neuropsychological and physical symptoms.

The effects may include:

post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)PainLoss of memory
DepressionFatigue, weaknessDifficulty in concentrating
AnxietyheadachesPrickling and tingling sensations
The inability of sleep/InsomniaNight sweatsDizziness, Fainting
Reduction of attention spanMuscle pain, spasmsInability to balance
PanicJoints become stiffsciatica

effects of electric shock
Fig 5: Overall effects of electric shock in the body

What is the let-go threshold?

When a person gets an electric shock than his muscle contracts making the muscles unable to let go of the source of electricity until removed by someone safely. The following table is a tabular representation of current measured in mill ampere and the body’s response.

Current (mA)Response
0.2–2A feeling of an electrical sensation
1–2+Painful shock
3–5the let-go threshold for children
6–10the minimum let-go threshold for adults
10–20 a seizure can be seen at the contact point
22Failing to let go, for 99% of adults
20–50Possible seizures
50–100Life-threatening heart rhythms/ irregular heartbeat or cardiac arrest
Table2: Electricity and Body Response

First Aid for Electric Shocks

If one has got electric shock then it is very difficult to do anything to help himself. But some measures can be applied which could be really helpful in getting serious injuries like:

First Aid for oneself(If you got electric shock)

  • It is better to try to let go of the source of electricity.
  • If possible, call 911 or provincial or community emergency services care providers.
  • If the shock is due to small household appliances it is better to visit the doctor once even any injuries were not observed. This is because electric shock may sometimes cause internal injuries which could be difficult to analyze.
  • And it is better to cover the burn with sterile gauze. It is not recommended to use adhesive tape, because it might stick to the burns and make our wounds worse.  

First Aid for others(If others get electric shock)

  • It is better to stay calm while helping others during electric shock so that you could help by keeping yourself safe.
  • It is not recommended to touch someone who got an electric shock and is still in touch with the origin of electricity.
  • It is better not to move the one who has got electric shock until and unless there are chances of further shock.
  • Turn off the main source of electricity first as soon as possible. If it is not possible to move the electric trigger away from the victim
  • Turn off the flow of electricity if possible. If it is not possible to remove the source of electricity away from the person, using a non-conductor material move away the source of electricity. Wood and rubber are bad conductors of electricity and can be used for this purpose.
  • It is not recommended to use metal objects or wet clothes or towels.
  • It is better to stay a minimum of 20 ft away if they have been hit by high voltage power lines.
  • Calling local services or 911 could be helpful if they are struck by lightning or high voltage power lines.
  • If the person has seizures loss of consciousness, muscle spasm, fast heartbeat or any other symptoms related to heart inform the local community emergency service care provider.
  • CPR needs to start if there seems to be any problem in breathing and pulse.
  • If vomiting or fainting is seen as symptoms elevate the legs until it is painful. These are signs of shock
  • It is better to cover burns with sterile gauze. Band-Aids should be avoided.
First Aid of electric shock
Fig 4: Clearing Airway Blockage

CPR should be performed in three ways :

  1. Providing compressions:

By keeping one hand on the top of another in the middle portion of the chest CPR could be given. Use bodyweight to push down hard so that you can administer compressions as fast as possible about 2 inches deep. Within 60 sec it is better to provide 100-120 compressions.

2. Delivering rescue breaths:

At first clearing any airway blockage is necessary. Tilt the head backward and lift the chin upwards mouth to mouth resuscitation is given by blowing the air in the mouth to rise up the chest. Two rescue breaths and continuous compressions could help save a life.

3. Repeat the process:

Repeat the process continuously until any help is offered or the person starts breathing.

First aid of electric shock.
Fig4: Process of CPR

Medical Diagnosis

When reached the emergency department of a hospital a complete physical observation is done to find out any potential external as well as internal injuries. Some tests that are commonly requested by doctors to analyze the situation  may include:

  • Electrocardiogram to observe rhythms of the heart.
  • Pregnancy Test- For pregnant women to track the effect of electric shock on developing fetuses.
  • CT scan – For any brain, spine, or chest injury.
  • Some laboratory tests from blood like complete blood count, muscle enzymes  to analyze for rhabdomyolysis
  • X-Rays – To look for any fractures or any bone injury which may be due to imbalance during electrocution

Medical Treatment

  • For small burns some antibiotic ointment and dressing are sufficient.
  • More major burns need to clean through surgery or even may need grafting.
  • If major burns are present on limbs, then it may require surgery to clear up all the damaged muscle, and sometimes even amputation is needed.
  • Eye injuries should be examined by an ophthalmologist and necessary treatment should be done.
  • To stabilize for broken bones surgery may be needed.
  • Internal injuries should be kept under close guidance later there may be a need for surgery.
  • For pain management medication like acetaminophen could be administered.
  • Due to burns a heavy loss of fluid could be managed by intravenous fluids.
  • Sometimes a tetanus vaccine could be needed depending upon the origin of shock.

Prevention of Electric Shock

Prevention of electrical injury depends upon the age group.

For children who are less than 12 years of age

  • Electric shocks are caused by power cords. It is mandatory to replace any damaged or broken cords whose wire is exposed.
  • Do not let your children play with any electrical cords or appliances.
  • Outlet covers should be used to protect infants and children from scrutinizing electrical outlets.
  • Old ungrounded electrical outlets should be grounded

For children older than 12 years of age

  • Most electrical damages are due to unnecessary activities around high voltage systems. Counselling adolescent children are necessary so that they won’t climb on power systems, play near transformers, etc.
  • Among adults a simple alert of mind could help reduce electrical injuries. While working on electricity is needed to cut off the main power system. Any electrical devices near water should be prohibited.
  • When outdoors use precaution in the thunderstorm lightning. Having a shelter in a building or crouching low far from the metal and trees could really be helpful in protecting the outdoors.
prevention of electric shock
Fig 6:Prevention of electric shock

General FAQs

Can water be used as a first-aid treatment of burning wounds?

Ans-If there is a burn due to electric shock the wound can be kept in cool water for some time.

Why is it not recommended to touch the person who is electrocuted?

Ans-Our body is a good conductor of electricity so if we touch the person getting an electric shock, we may get electric shocks too.

Why is wood recommended in removing the source of electricity away from the victim?

Ans- Wood is a bad conductor of electricity therefore electricity can not pass through the wood maintaining safety.

Can band aid be used for burn wounds?

Ans- No it is not recommended to use band-aids because they may stick to the wound and worsen the situation.

What is cardiac arrest?

Ans-Cardiac arrest is a condition in which there is a sudden loss of heart function resulting in difficulty in breathing and unconsciousness.

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