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Electric shocks and burns

4-minute read

An electric shock can be life threatening. Call an ambulance on triple zero (000) if someone has had an electric shock and has lost consciousness, difficulty breathing or slow or fast heartbeat.

What is an electric shock or burn?

Electric shocks are caused by contact with live electricity that sends an electric current through the body. Sometimes the electricity can cause a burn, often where the electricity entered or exited the body.

Electric shocks can cause little more than a fright and some pain, or they can be severe enough to knock someone unconscious and stop their heart.

When should I call an ambulance or go to the emergency department?

An electric shock can be life threatening. Call an ambulance on triple zero (000) if someone has had an electric shock and:

  • lost consciousness, even for a second
  • they are breathing very fast or very slow
  • their heartbeat is very fast, or very slow, or irregular

If you do not call an ambulance, you should still visit the nearest emergency department or see your doctor as soon as possible.

Even if you can’t see a physical injury, an electric shock might cause internal damage. Even for a mild electric shock, you still need medical attention to assess whether it’s affected the heart.

Always take someone who has been shocked to the nearest emergency department for assessment.

What should I do while waiting for an ambulance?

If someone near you receives an electric shock, do not put yourself in danger:

  • look first, don’t touch — the person may still be in contact with the electricity, and if you touch them, you will receive an electric shock
  • switch off the electricity at the mains, remove fuses, turn off all powerpoints and unplug all cords before approaching the person
  • if that’s not possible, use material that does not conduct electricity, such as a dry wooden broom handle, to separate the person from the electricity source
  • take particular care if the victim is in contact with water, which carries electricity

When it is safe, check if the person is conscious and breathing. Gently touch and talk to the person. If there is no response, start CPR.

If there is an electrical burn, you can treat it in the same way as you would any other burn. Put the burnt area under running water for at least 20 minutes then cover with a sterile gauze bandage, if available, or a clean cloth. Don't use a blanket or towel, because loose fibers can stick to the burns.

What are the symptoms of an electric shock or burn?

The signs and symptoms of an electric shock depend on the type of current, how high the voltage is, how long the person was in contact with electricity, and their overall health.

The symptoms of an electric shock are:

  • difficulty breathing or no breathing at all
  • a weak, erratic pulse or no pulse at all
  • burns
  • loss of consciousness
  • cardiac arrest

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use our burns, scalds and electric shocks Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes electric shocks or burns?

Common causes include:

  • exposed electrical wires
  • water on electrical appliances
  • cutting through a live cable
  • old wiring
  • faulty appliances

Electric shocks are occasionally caused by lightning.

How are electric shocks or burns treated?

In the emergency department, doctors will run tests to check the heart or damage to the soft tissue of the body. They may give you painkillers.

Most people with an electric shock or burn will be able to go home, unless they have heart damage that needs to be treated in hospital.

Can electric shocks or burns be prevented?

You can ensure electrical safety in the home by installing safety switches and making sure they are tested regularly. Always use a licensed electrician for electrical work and make sure you repair any damaged powerpoints or switches.

Never use a power tool, appliance or lead that you know is faulty or has a frayed cord. Make sure there are no electrical appliances used in wet areas or near pools.

At work, make sure all electrical equipment is regularly inspected, tested and tagged. For more information, visit Safe Work Australia.

Are there complications of electric shocks or burns?

The most common complication of an electrical injury is infection.

Some people have damage to the brain, which can cause seizures, depression, anxiety or personality changes.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2019

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