A burn is a type of injury that occurs to the skin after exposure to excessive heat. Burns can occur from chemical, thermal and even friction burns, where heat is generated from a treadmill in motion or a rope burn after rope slides through someone’s hands.
While burns can happen any time at any place, most burn injuries take place at home. With common household devices consisting of air conditioners, computers, TVs, cameras, doorbells, microwaves and more, electrical burns are frequent at-home injuries.
The Dangers of Electrical Burns: What You Should Know
Electrical burns are a medical emergency, and you should call 911 or a local emergency number if you show any of the following symptoms: confusion, cardiac arrest, seizures, loss of consciousness, visible burn to the skin and difficulty breathing.
Elizabeth Dale, MD, UC Health plastic and reconstructive surgeon and assistant professor in the Department of Surgery at the UC College of Medicine, explains, “Electrical injuries are unique in how they affect human tissue. The heart is especially vulnerable because your heart rhythm is basically on an internal electrical circuit. When you get ‘zapped’, it can interrupt that circuit and either change the rhythm or stop it altogether.”
There are many factors that determine what electrical burn injuries may or may not occur. Some factors include the type of electrical current (AC or DC) a person is exposed to along with the amount of current that passes through their body.
“Electric current in the body tends to slow down and give off heat as it travels through your bones, causing internal burns next to the bones,” Dr. Dale said. “Sometimes, this affects the muscles (like in the arms and legs), and sometimes it affects internal organs (like the gut or spinal column). For this reason, the degree of injury is not always obvious from the outside.”
Low voltage electricity does not typically cause severe injury. However, high voltage electricity can result in serious complications. Low voltage electricity is anything less than 500 volts, while high voltage electricity is anything greater than 500 volts.
If you are near an electrified person, do not touch them with your hands. It is critical to ensure you are safe when arriving at the scene so you can provide the best assistance for the person in need.
Julia Slater, MD, UC Health plastic and reconstructive surgeon and assistant professor in the Department of Surgery at the UC College of Medicine, said, “If you come across someone with a burn from an electrical injury, it is very important that you stop and make sure the scene is safe before you provide help. Always look for active power lines or turn off the electric supply to outlets and cords before approaching. First-aid should be administered as you should for any trauma patient, while being careful not to move them unless necessary, checking to see if they are breathing normally and have a heartbeat.”
Tips from A to Z
The American Burn Association provides recommendations on how best to avoid electrical burns. The below list is not comprehensive, but it does provide guidelines and best safety practices to follow so that you and your loved ones can avoid electrical burns while at home or in the workplace, starting from amps to zaps.
- Appliances. Vacuums. Blenders. Toasters. The list of household appliances is endless. To reduce the chances for an electrical burn to occur, it is recommended to plug only one appliance into an outlet at a time.
- Batteries. Batteries can short circuit, causing an unexpected electrical charge to occur. Be careful when placing batteries in your pockets because if the batteries come in contact with coins, keys and other metal objects they can short circuit and cause burns.
- Cords. When using cords, make sure to check for cracks or frayed sockets in addition to loose or bare wires. Loose cord connections can also cause a shock and sometimes, even burns.
- Drowning. For your local or backyard swimming pool, lights and wiring for pool lighting should be sealed and undamaged. When pool lighting or wiring is compromised, the pool is no longer safe and there is the potential for electric shock drowning to occur. You should contact a pool service to safely repair broken or damaged lights.
- Extension cords. Be careful as to what type of extension cords you are using. For example, never use an indoor extension cord outdoors.
- Frayed. Electrical cords that are broken or frayed should be avoided at all times.
- Generator. Never plug a generator into a household outlet. This will cause a back feed. Hire a qualified electrician to install a transfer switch for emergency generator use.
- Heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems (HVAC). You should contact a qualified service professional to schedule annual inspections for your home’s HVAC system. The professional should check for any electrical problems.
- Indicates. A flickering light usually indicates the fixture/circuit has loose wires or the bulb has loosened. If this happens, tighten the bulb. If flickering continues, then it would be best to call an electrician to help determine the problem.
- Jumper cables. Every car is different, so always check the owner’s manual for the vehicle beforehand. Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines to know how to properly jump-start a car battery with jumper cables.
- Keep. Remember to keep electrical devices and outlets away from water to help prevent shock.
- Lockout. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides lockout safeguards from unexpected energy or startup of machinery.
- Maintenance. Regularly schedule maintenance checkups on electrical equipment to look for frayed cords, damaged insulation and broken plugs.
- National Electric Code. When performing electrical work in your home, make sure it meets or exceeds the standards of the National Electric Code.
- Outside. If caught outside in a storm, find immediate shelter in a sturdy, enclosed building or hard top automobile.
- Pull. Never pull an item from an electrical outlet by the cord. Instead, pull from the base.
- Qualified electricians. Electricians install and maintain all of the electrical power systems for homes, businesses and buildings. They have years of training and are licensed professionals who perform safe electrical work.
- Rug. Never have plugged-in extension cords running underneath rugs.
- Stay back. Make sure to stay back at least 20 feet and call 911 if you come across a down power line.
- Tripped circuit breakers. Circuit breakers that are frequently tripped indicate that the circuit cannot handle the demand for power. Move appliances to other circuits or have an electrician check your household electrical system.
- Underground. Before digging to plant trees or install fences or mailboxes, always call 811 to contact a local utility service who will locate underground utilities to help prevent injuries and deaths from electrocution.
- Voltage. Never assume a circuit is safe because it is powered off. Use a meter to check for voltage before touching any airing or other electrical components.
- Warm. Unusually warm switches or outlets may indicate unsafe wiring. Stop using the switches and call an electrician.
- X-ray. A radiologist will ensure there is sufficient grounding of the X-ray table, control panel and tube stand when working with electricity.
- Y-adapter. A Y-Adapter splits power from a single outlet into two. When using one, be sure the electrical amperage does not exceed the power source.
- Zapped. Make sure electrical equipment is properly grounded so you avoid getting zapped by the electricity.
Burns are some of the most devastating types of medical emergencies. Burn injuries can vary—from mild to severe—and are classified as first, second, third or fourth degree, depending on how severely the heat breaks through the skin’s surface at contact.
Cincinnati’s Trusted Burn Treatment Experts
The UC Health Burn Center is the region’s only adult burn center that provides specialized care for those affected by burn injuries. Our care team features specially trained healthcare professionals qualified in burn management, wound care and critical care.
Our specialists often teach and participate in the American Burn Association Advanced Burn Life Support program, providing firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals the skills they need to assess and stabilize patients with serious burns during the first critical hours following an injury.