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Patient education: Electrical burns (The Basics)
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Patient education: Electrical burns (The Basics)
Written by the doctors and editors at UpToDate
All topics are updated as new evidence becomes available and our peer review process is complete.
Literature review current through: Dec 2017. | This topic last updated: Jun 19, 2017.

What is an electrical burn? — An electrical burn is a skin burn that happens when electricity comes in contact with your body.

When electricity comes in contact with your body, it can travel through your body. When this happens, the electricity can damage tissues and organs. This damage can be mild or severe – and it can even cause death. Organs that are commonly damaged include the:

Heart – People can get abnormal heart rhythms. Their heart can also suddenly stop beating, which is called "cardiac arrest."

Kidneys – The kidneys can stop working normally.

Bones and muscles – If the muscles are severely injured, substances from inside damaged muscle cells can leak into the blood. This is called "rhabdomyolysis." In some cases it can cause injury to other organs. People can also get an abnormal build-up of pressure in a group of muscles, called "acute compartment syndrome."

Nervous system – People can pass out, have muscle weakness, or eye or ear damage.

What are the symptoms of an electrical burn? — The symptoms depend on how much electricity came in contact with your body and how long the contact lasted.

Electricity can cause different types of skin burns, depending on which skin layers are affected. The terms doctors use to describe different types of burns are:

Superficial – A superficial burn affects only the top layer of the skin. The skin is red, dry, and painful. When you press on the burn, it turns white.

Partial-thickness – A partial-thickness burn affects the top 2 layers of the skin. The skin is red and can leak fluid or form blisters.

Full-thickness – A full-thickness burn affects all the layers of the skin. The burn doesn't usually hurt, because the burned skin can't feel anything. The skin can be white, gray, or black.

Other symptoms depend on whether or not you have damage to your internal organs.

Should I see a doctor or nurse? — Yes. If you get an electrical burn, see your doctor or nurse right away. That's because an electrical burn sometimes causes mild skin damage, but there can still be severe internal organ and tissue damage.

Will I need tests? — Probably. Your doctor or nurse will ask about your injury and do an exam. He or she might order tests to check for organ damage. Tests can include:

Blood tests

Urine tests

An electrocardiogram (also called an "ECG" or "EKG") – This test measures the electrical activity in your heart (figure 1).

How is an electrical burn treated? — Treatment depends on the type of skin burn you have and how serious it is.

Treatments for a mild skin burn can include:

Cooling the burn – You can put a cool cloth on your burn or soak it in cool water. Do not put ice on a burn.

Covering the burn with a clean bandage – Your doctor might also recommend or prescribe a cream or ointment to soothe the skin or prevent an infection.

Treating the pain – To ease your pain, you can raise the burned part of your body above the level of your heart. For example, you can prop your foot or leg up on pillows. You can also take an over-the-counter pain medicine, such as acetaminophen (sample brand name: Tylenol) or ibuprofen (sample brand names: Advil, Motrin).

Getting a tetanus shot, if it has been too many years since your last one

A severe skin burn is usually treated in the hospital. Treatments can include:

Strong pain medicines

Special bandages

Antibiotic and other types of creams or ointments

Surgery to repair the burned area

Your doctor will also treat any problems you have from damage to internal organs.

Can electrical burns be prevented? — To help prevent you or a family member from getting an electrical burn, you can:

Put child safety covers on all electrical outlets.

Keep electrical cords out of the reach of children.

Follow the directions when using electrical appliances.

Avoid using electrical appliances in the shower or bath.

Turn off the circuit breaker when you are working with electricity.

More on this topic

Patient education: Skin burns (The Basics)
Patient education: Sudden cardiac arrest (The Basics)
Patient education: CPR for adults (The Basics)
Patient education: CPR for children (The Basics)
Patient education: Acute kidney injury (The Basics)
Patient education: Rhabdomyolysis (The Basics)
Patient education: Acute compartment syndrome (The Basics)

Patient education: Skin burns (Beyond the Basics)

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