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The 411 on Electrical Burns

Electrical Burn

Our lives are dependent on electricity—24 hours a day. It is such an important part of our day to day living that it is almost impossible to fathom a world without electricity. Even while we sleep, electricity is keeping our food cold and our security systems operating. Throughout the day, we tend to take electricity for granted.

In the United States, about 400 die from electrocution and 4,400 are injured each year because of electrical hazards. Of these, 4,000 people are injured in workplace electrical accidents and 325 people die, according to the National Safety Council.

What Are Electrical Burns?

Electrical burns are burns sustained when a person comes into contact with an open current of electricity. The electrical current runs through the body, damaging internal tissues, muscles, organs (such as the heart and kidneys), and/or the nervous system, often without doing any major harm to the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin). In some cases, electrical burns can render a person unconscious.

There are 6 main classes of electrical burns:

  • Low-voltage burns: Any mild electrical burn sustained as a result of contact with 500 volts of electricity or less. Usually, only the epidermis at the site of the burn is affected.
  • High-voltage burns: Any severe electrical burn sustained as a result of coming into contact with a high voltage of electricity—this supply will run through the body and cause substantial internal damage.
  • Arc burns: These are burns that are sustained when an electrical current passes from a high-resistance area to a low-resistance area. No actual contact is needed to suffer an arc burn. Instead, the electricity ionizes (a process in which electrically neutral atoms/molecules are converted to electrically charged atoms/molecules) air particles. These burns typically harm the epidermis, as they generate huge amounts of heat and pressure that can ignite a person's clothing and throw them from where they stand, respectively.
  • Flame burns: This class of burn is sustained when a person comes into contact with any object ignited by a current of electricity.
  • Flash burns: These burns are related to arc burns, as they occur when an electrical arc passes over the skin, causing great damage to the epidermis. Fortunately, they do not cause too much internal damage. That being said, these are severe burns that cover large parts of the body.
  • Oral burns: These are simply electrical burns that occur in the mouth, such as from sucking or chewing on electrical cords and/or wires.

Common Causes Of Electrical Burns

There are many circumstances that can lead to a person suffering any electrical burns, such as chewing on wires, using frayed wires, approaching downed power lines, attempting to do the work of an electrician when you are not one, and sticking a knife or fork into a toaster oven. These burns can also result from submerging electrical devices in water or even from simply using these devices near open or still water.

How Can I Reduce My Risk?

You can reduce your risk by being cautious around electrical devices or electrical wiring. Do not go within 35 feet of a downed power line, use electronics near water, or stick fingers or metal objects into power outlets. Do not entrust your health to rubber-soled shoes—have a professional handle any electrical work instead. Likewise, do not go out for walks in lighting storms or stick metal cutlery into a toaster.

How Are Electrical Burns Treated?

Treatment will depend on the type of electrical burn. Some burns may require surgery to treat internal damage, while others only require topical ointments and creams to address external damage. Since it is difficult to determine the full extent of an electrical burn on your own, it is advised to consult a medical professional.