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Electrical Shock or Burn

Topic Overview

When you touch a light switch to turn on a light, you may receive a minor electrical shock. You may feel tingling in your hand or arm. Usually, this tingling goes away in a few minutes. If you do not have damage to the skin or other symptoms, there is no reason to worry.

If your skin is burned by electricity, there is cause for concern. Electrical burns may look minor at first. But the burn may be more serious if tissues along the path of the electrical current are damaged. All the damage from these burns might not be seen for up to 10 days after the burn. There might be burns where the electrical current enters the body and also where it leaves the body.

When electricity passes though your body, the electricity may injure blood vessels, nerves, and muscles. The electrical current may cause rapid and severe swelling in the throat and lungs, making it hard for a person to breathe. As the electrical current passes through the heart muscle, heartbeat problems can develop.

Electricity passing through your body can be powerful enough to cause a fall. This can cause other injuries such as fractures. Electricity can also cause strong muscle contractions that can cause injury.

Lightning strike

The skin burn from lightning strikes may not be severe. Lightning current usually flows over the body (flashover) and does not injure deeper organs or tissues, which is the reason some people can survive a lightning strike. A direct lightning strike can occur when a person is holding or wearing metal objects. Lightning can also strike objects near a person, and some of the lightning current can travel to the person indirectly (called a splash). The electrical current from lightning can cause the same problems as from other electrical sources, depending on how direct the strike is. Participating in outdoor sports activities increases your risk of being struck by lightning.

You need to be evaluated by a doctor if you have been struck by lightning, even if the injury appears minor. Burns from a lightning strike or electrical power also need to be evaluated by a doctor.

Stun guns and tasers

Stun guns and tasers are called "electronic weapons." They are handheld weapons that use electricity to stun a person. The electricity causes uncontrollable muscle contractions. After being stunned with electricity, the person usually falls to the ground.

These weapons are less likely to cause death or injury than other weapons, such as handguns. But stun guns and tasers can cause serious medical problems, such as irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias). Others types of injuries include burns, cuts, muscle problems (rhabdomyolysis), twisting of a testicle (testicular torsion), and miscarriage.

Related Information

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised December 27, 2012

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