Electric Shock

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on May 09, 2023
6 min read

An electric shock occurs when a person comes into contact with an electrical energy source. Electrical energy flows through a portion of the body, causing a shock. Exposure to electrical energy may result in no injury at all or may result in devastating damage or death.

Burns are the most common injury from electric shock.

Adolescents and adults are prone to high-voltage shock caused by mischievous exploration and exposure at work. About 1,000 people in the United States die each year as a result of electrocution. Most of these deaths are related to on-the-job injuries.

Many things determine what injuries may occur, if any. These include the type of current (AC or DC), the amount of current (determined by the voltage of the source and the resistance of the tissues involved), and the pathway the electricity takes through the body. Low-voltage electricity (less than 500 volts) may result in only superficial burns or possibly more severe injuries, depending on the matters above. Exposure to high-voltage electricity (greater than 500 volts) can cause serious damage.

If you are going to help someone who has sustained a high-voltage shock, you need to be very careful that you don't become a second victim of a similar electrical shock. If a high-voltage line has fallen to the ground, there may be a circle of current spreading out from the tip of the line. Your best bet may be to call 911. The electric company will be notified so that the power can be shut off. A victim who has fallen from a height or gotten a severe shock causing multiple jerks may have a serious neck injury and should not be moved without first protecting the neck.

Children are not often seriously injured by electricity. They are prone to shock by the low voltage (110-220 volts) found in typical household current. In children ages 12 years and younger, household appliance electrical cords and extension cords caused more than 63% of injuries in one study. Wall outlets were responsible for 15% of injuries.

A person who has had an electric shock may have very little external evidence of injury or may have obvious severe burns. The person could even be in cardiac arrest.

  • Burns are usually most severe at the points of contact with the electrical source and the ground. The hands, heels, and head are common points of contact.
  • In addition to burns, other injuries are possible if the person has been thrown clear of the electrical source by forceful muscular contraction. A spine injury may happen. The person also may have internal injuries, especially if they are having any shortness of breath, chest pain, or abdominal pain.
  • Pain in a hand or foot or a deformity of a part of the body may indicate a possible broken bone resulting from the electric shock.
  • In children, the typical electrical mouth burn from biting an electric cord appears as a burn on the lip. The area has a red or dark, charred appearance.

For a high-voltage shock, seek care at a hospital's emergency department. Following a low-voltage shock, call the doctor for the following reasons:

  • It has been more than 5 years since your last tetanus booster
  • Burns that are not healing well
  • Burns with increasing redness, soreness, or drainage
  • Any electric shock in a pregnant woman

A person shocked by high voltage (500 volts or more) should be evaluated in the emergency department. It may be prudent to call 911. After a low-voltage shock, go to the emergency department for the following concerns:

  • Any noticeable burn to the skin
  • Any period of unconsciousness
  • Any numbness, tingling, paralysis, vision, hearing, or speech problems
  • Confusion
  • A hard time breathing
  • Seizures
  • Any electric shock if you're more than 20 weeks pregnant
  • Any other worrisome symptoms

The 911 emergency personnel may tell you to:

  1. Separate the person from the current's source. To turn off power, unplug an appliance. If the plug is damaged, you man need to shut off power via a circuit breaker, fuse box, or outside switch.

  2. If you can't turn off power, stand on something dry and non-conductive, such as dry newspapers, a telephone book, or wooden board. Try to separate the person from the current using non-conductive object such as wooden or plastic broom handle, chair, or rubber doormat.

  3. If high-voltage lines are involved, the local power company must shut them off. Do not try to separate the person from current if you feel a tingling sensation in your legs and lower body. Hop on one foot to a safe place where you can wait for lines to be disconnected. If a power line falls on a car, instruct the passengers to stay inside unless explosion or fire threatens.

  4. If the person is not breathing or does not have a pulse, do CPR if you know it. Only do this when you can safely touch the person after they have been disconnected from the current.

  5. Wait for 911 emergency services to arrive. 

At the emergency department, the doctor's primary concern is to find out if there's unseen injury. Injury may occur to muscles, the heart, or the brain from the electricity or to any bones or other organs from being thrown from the electric source.

The doctor may order various tests, depending on the history and physical examination. Tests may include any or none of the following:

  • EKG to check the heart
  • Complete blood count
  • Blood or urine test or both for muscle enzymes (would indicate significant muscle injury)
  • X-rays to look for fractures or dislocations, both of which may be caused by a near electrocution
  • CT scan

Brief low-voltage shocks that do not result in any symptoms or burns of the skin do not require care. For any high-voltage shock, or for any shock resulting in burns, seek care at a hospital's emergency department. A doctor should evaluate electric cord burns to the mouth of a child.

Treatment depends on the how severe the burns are or the nature of other injuries found.

  • Burns are treated according to how severe they are.
    • Minor burns may be treated with topical antibiotic ointment and dressings.
    • More severe burns may require surgery to clean the wounds or even skin grafting.
    • Severe burns on the arms, legs, or hands may require surgery to remove damaged muscle or even amputation.
  • Other injuries may require treatment.
    • Eye injuries may require examination and treatment by an ophthalmologist, an eye specialist.
    • Broken bones require splinting, casting, or surgery to stabilize the bones.
    • Internal injuries may require observation or surgery.

Steps to prevent electrical injury depend on the age of people involved.

  • For children younger than 12, most electrical injuries are caused by power cords. Inspect your power cords and extension cords. Replace any cords that have a broken or cracked external covering and any cord that has exposed wire.
    • Do not allow children to play with any electrical cord.
    • Limit the use of extension cords, and be sure the cord is rated for the current (measured in amps) that will be drawn by the device being powered.
    • Use outlet covers to protect infants from exploring electrical outlets.
    • Update old, ungrounded electrical outlets to grounded (three-prong) systems. Replace outlets near any water (sink, tub) with fused (GFCI) outlets.
  • In children older than 12, most electrical injuries result from exploring and activities around high-power systems. Explain to adolescent children that they should not climb on power towers, play near transformer systems, or explore electrified train rails or other electrical systems.
  • Among adults, use of common sense can help reduce electrical injury. Always check that the power is off before working on electrical systems. Avoid use of Don't use electrical devices near water. Be careful of standing in water when working with electricity.
  • Use caution when outdoors during a thunderstorm. Protect yourself from lightning strikes by seeking shelter in a sturdy building or crouching low and away from trees and metal objects if caught outdoors.


Recovery from electric shock depends on the how severe the injuries are and their nature. The percentage of the body surface area burned is the most important factor affecting prognosis.

If someone who has received an electric shock does not have cardiac arrest right away and does not have severe burns, they are likely to survive.

Infection is the most common cause of death in people hospitalized after an electrical injury.

Electrical damage to the brain may result in a permanent seizure disorder, depression, anxiety, or other personality changes.