Electric Shock

Electric shock happens when an electrical current passes from a live source and travels through your body. Electrical injuries can range from mild to severe. In some cases, they’re fatal.


What is electric shock?

Electric shock occurs when an electrical current touches or travels through your body. It can happen anywhere there’s electricity. Exact effects vary depending on the electrical source. For instance, shocks from outlets in houses are often mild, while shocks from power lines can be severe or fatal. When an electric shock is fatal, providers call it electrocution.

Voltage pushes electricity through lines, wires and devices. High voltage means there’s more electricity, while low voltage means there’s less. But low-voltage electric shocks can still be dangerous or, in some cases, fatal. Seemingly minor injuries can cause complications inside your body that might not be noticeable right away. For this reason, anyone with an electric shock injury — even a minor one — should see a healthcare provider as soon as possible.

If you’re with someone who experiences electric shock, call 911 immediately. Don’t touch the person if they’re still in contact with an electrical current. Unless they’re in danger of additional injuries, don’t move them. Doing so can cause further injury. If possible, turn off the source of power.


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How common is electric shock?

Around 30,000 non-fatal electric shock injuries happen in the United States every year. About 20% of these occur in children (often from chewing on electric cords or sticking metal objects into outlets). The rest occur in adults who work in construction or similar industries.

About 1,000 people in the United States are electrocuted (fatally shocked) every year. Around 400 of these deaths occur from high-voltage electric sources. Between 50 and 300 cases occur from lightning.

Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of electric shock?

Possible symptoms of electric shock are:

Electric shock symptoms aren’t always obvious. A person who’s had an electric shock may seem unharmed. But they still need immediate medical care in case of internal injuries.


What causes electric shock?

Several things can cause electrical injuries, like:

  • Old, damaged or exposed electrical wiring.
  • Getting water on household outlets or appliances.
  • Cutting through a live electrical cable.
  • Faulty household appliances.
  • Fallen powerlines.
  • Lightning strikes (less common).

What are the complications of electric shock?

Electric shock can cause a range of health complications, including:

  • Infection (most common cause of death in people hospitalized after an electric shock injury).
  • Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia).
  • Cardiac arrest.
  • Coma.
  • Amnesia.
  • Respiratory arrest (when you can’t breathe on your own).
  • Burns.
  • Psychiatric disorders, including anxiety, depression or personality changes.
  • Blunt force trauma or broken bones (if thrown from the electric source).


Diagnosis and Tests

What tests are used?

When you arrive at the hospital, a medical team will run tests to determine the extent of your injuries. Specifically, they’ll check to see if your heart, brain, muscles and bones have any damage from the electric shock.

Tests may include:

Management and Treatment

How is electric shock treated?

Treatment depends on the source of electric shock and the severity of your injuries, but may include:


Can electric shock be prevented?

Following certain guidelines can ensure safety both in your home and at work:

  • Always use a licensed electrician for electrical work.
  • Install safety switches and test them routinely.
  • Never use electric appliances around water or wet areas.
  • Don’t use any appliance that has a damaged or frayed cord.
  • Always use power tools as intended and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Follow all safety guidelines at work and wear rubber shoes and gloves when necessary.

Outlook / Prognosis

What’s the outlook for people with electric shock injuries?

Electric shock injuries range from very mild to severe or fatal. The overall outlook depends on many factors, including the source of electricity and the extent of your injuries. High-voltage shocks are more likely to cause serious symptoms compared to low-voltage shocks. But even low-voltage electric shock injuries can be fatal, depending on the circumstances.

A person with an electric shock injury is less likely to survive if they:

  • Go into cardiac arrest.
  • Have burns covering significant areas of their body.
  • Develop an infection.

Even after successful treatment, someone with a serious electric shock injury could develop lifelong complications, including certain psychiatric disorders.

Living With

When should I see my healthcare provider?

Anyone who receives an electric shock should get medical care, even when there aren’t any noticeable symptoms:

  • For low-voltage electric shocks that don’t result in burns, get an evaluation from a healthcare provider within 48 hours. Treatments for internal electrical shock injuries are most effective within that window of time. If your child received an electric shock, call their pediatrician for an appointment.
  • For low-voltage electric shocks that result in burns, go to the emergency room. Don’t try to treat the burn at home.
  • For high-voltage electric shocks, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room immediately.

Additional Common Questions

What is the difference between electrocution vs. shock?

Many people use the terms interchangeably, but:

  • Electric shock is a non-fatal electrical injury.
  • Electrocution is a fatal electrical injury.

Can an electric shock from a plug kill you?

It’s not common, but it’s possible. A standard electrical outlet in the United States is 120 volts. While electrical injuries do occur at this voltage, they’re usually not fatal. But fatalities have occurred from electrical sources as low as 42 volts.

Can an electric shock kill you later?

Yes, people who avoid electrocution can still die from injuries later. The most common delayed electric shock symptoms are infection and cardiac arrest. Prompt medical care can reduce the risk of these delayed complications.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Emergencies happen when you least expect them. An electric shock injury can change everything in an instant. To reduce your risk of electrical accidents, follow all necessary safety precautions and hire a professional electrician for major jobs. If you or someone you know has an electric shock injury, seek medical care right away.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 01/19/2024.

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