All About Burns: Electrical Burns

This is the second post of our 3-part series on burns. Read part one for more on chemical burns or part three for more on thermal burns.

An electrical burn occurs when electric currents pass through the skin and body. As the current moves through, it can damage the organs and other tissues. An electrical burn can be mild to severe and potentially fatal.

You can receive electrical burns from appliances, exposed wiring, or through a lightning strike. People at high risk of electrical burns often have jobs that expose them to electrical circuits, keep them outdoors, or require them to work in thunderstorms. Working on electrical systems or appliances without proper training also places a person at risk of electrical burns.

The Risks of Electrical Burns

The risk from electrical burns is high because the heart is especially sensitive to electrical disruption. The current can cause an abnormal heart rhythm called arrhythmia or even cardiac arrest.

An electrical current running through bones and muscles can cause rhabdomyolysis, a release of proteins and electrolytes into the bloodstream that can cause further damage. Burns to the muscles can also result in compartment syndrome, an abnormal pressure build-up that reduces the blood flow to those muscles.

Electrical currents can damage the nervous system, causing weakness or numbness. In case of a lightning strike, an individual could sustain damage to their eyes and ears. 

In substance, electrical burns are like most burns — the damage depends on the severity of the burn. It can include everything from the skin to bodily organs. The severity depends on several elements:

  • The voltage of the source
  • The amperage of current passing through the body
  • The resistance of the tissue through which the current passes
  • The pathway of the current
  • The duration of the contact

The higher the voltage, amperage, and contact, the greater the damage. Your bones have the highest resistance to electrical current, while your nerves, which operate on electrical current themselves, have the lowest resistance. Once the current overcomes the resistance, it flows through the rest of the tissue.

What is the difference between an urgent care facility and a freestanding emergency room? Learn more here.

Symptoms of Electrical Burns

Burn symptoms depend on the amount of electricity and how long the contact lasts. You could sustain any of the following:

  • Superficial burns that only affect the top layer of skin and leave it red, dry, and painful. When you press on it, it turns white.
  • Partial-thickness burns affect the top two layers of skin and cause redness. Sometimes the skin leaks fluid or forms blisters.
  • Full-thickness burns affect all skin layers but don’t usually hurt because the current damages the nerves. The skin can become white, gray, or black.

Other symptoms can occur as well:

  • Severe muscle spasms
  • Weakness or lightheadedness
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Skin burns
  • Headache or confusion
  • Seizures  
  • Pounding heart or fluttering from arrhythmia

The burns can leave several wounds, including entrance and exit wounds, arc wounds, and thermal wounds. Some wounds are hidden. Even though the skin seems unaffected, the underlying tissues and organs may sustain severe damage.

Burn Treatment

There is a lot of misinformation out there about how to treat burns. Do NOT use butter, mayonnaise, egg whites, or any grease on a burn, no matter how slight. Avoid using iodine, alcohol, cleansers, or other medications directly on the burn site.

Instead, use basic first aid for burns:

  • Cool the burn in cool water. Do NOT use ice.
  • Cover the burn with sterile gauze or a clean cloth.
  • Treat the pain by raising the injured body part above the level of the heart and taking OTC medications like Tylenol.
  • See a doctor about the need for antibiotics and a tetanus shot.

Severe burns require hospital treatment. The patient receives strong pain medications, special bandages, antibiotics, creams, and ointments prescribed by the doctor. Burned areas may require surgery for repair, and the patient is treated for any problems stemming from organ damage.

Burn Prevention

You can prevent most burns with a few safety precautions.

Use child safety covers on all electrical outlets and never place a metal implement of any kind into an outlet. 

Keep electrical cords out of the reach of children and follow all directions when using electrical appliances. Avoid using electrical appliances in the shower or bath. Always turn off the circuit breaker when working with electricity.

If your job involves work with electric systems or appliances, always follow all workplace safety rules and regulations.

Never approach high-voltage or overhead power lines, especially if they are sparking or jumping. Never drive over downed power lines; stay in your vehicle if a power line contacts your car. 

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When to Go to the ER

If you suspect that someone has been burned, get medical help immediately. Don’t touch them if they are still in contact with the electrical wire or current. Do not try to move the person if they are severely injured.

Go to the emergency room if the person displays any of the following:

  • Confusion 
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Absence of a pulse or breathing
  • Muscle pain and contractions
  • Seizures or loss of consciousness

Do not remove clothing or try to clean the burned area. If you can, cover the burn with a sterile gauze bandage, clean cloth, or sheet (avoiding anything with loose fibers like blankets or towels). Try to prevent the person from becoming chilled or going into shock.

Visit Family First ER for Electrical Burn Treatment

The doctors at Family First ER are trained to treat electrical burns, no matter the severity. With burn care, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Burns may not always leave much of a mark on the skin yet cause serious organ damage. Our doctors can get you the treatment you need.

We have experienced staff available 24/7 to provide the care you and your loved ones need in case of electrical burns.