What Is Electrical Shock and How Can I Prevent It?

Updated: Sep. 27, 2023

Electrical shock injures thousands of people every year. Before doing any of your own electrical work, take precautions and know the risk.

Getting an electrical shock can be startling to terrifying. Startling, like a zap from a light switch. Or terrifying, like when I stood inside of large piece of electrical distribution equipment when the power suddenly came on.

Yes, this actually happened to me. I was an electrical apprentice, and my crew had taken precautions to lockout/tagout. That means removing the power source, and clearly locking and labeling the equipment so others won’t turn it on.

Unfortunately, something went wrong, and the jolt I received landed me in the ER in the middle of the night. Thankfully, I was fine. But that’s how fast electricity can turn on you, and why you must take electrical safety seriously.

Homeowners understandably want to save money and flex their DIY muscles by doing their own electrical work. But it’s important to recognize the risks and do everything you can to mitigate them.

What Is Electrical Shock?

Electrical shock (or just electric shock) is your body’s physiological reaction to an electrical current passing through it.

Currents as low as one milliamp (mA) — 0.001-amp — can be felt as a tingling sensation, while 10- to 20-mA causes muscle contractions so severe you can’t let go of the electrical wire or other source of the current. Higher than 100-mA can cause ventricular fibrillation, a life-threatening irregular heartbeat.

You may have heard people say “I’ve electrocuted myself!” when they get shocked. Luckily, if they can tell you that story, they haven’t been electrocuted. Electrocution only refers to fatal electrical shocks.

How Dangerous Is Electrical Shock?

Very.

Remember, it only takes a fraction of an amp to cause shock, injury and even death. It’s not just the number of amps, though. The length of time you’re exposed and the path the current takes through the body both also matter.

Current always wants to travel back to the source — your electrical panel, and the utility before that. If you get in the way of that current, it may use your body as that path if the resistance is low enough.

Hands are the most common entry point for electrical current through the body, a foot the most common exit — a path that takes the current through your chest, and potentially your heart.

About 30,000 people suffer electrical shock injuries every year, and approximately 1,000 die. The majority of injuries and deaths are from low-voltage sources (your home’s 120-volt wiring is considered low voltage), with 20% in children. High-voltage injuries from lightning and power lines are less common but still account for 400 deaths per year.

Burns are the most common non-fatal injury, and sometimes the extent of damage cannot be seen externally. What appears to be a superficial burn may have caused internal injuries to tissues and internal organs. It’s important to get checked by a doctor if you suffer from any electrical shock.

How To Treat Electrical Shock

Before you can treat electrical shock, you have to have someone there to help. It’s important never to do electrical work alone.

If you’re with someone who has suffered a shock, take these steps:

  • Turn off the breaker if you know where it is.
  • Use a non-conductive object, like a 2×4 or wooden broom handle, to physically separate someone from the electrified object if they can’t let go. That protects you from becoming a victim yourself. Never attempt to pull someone away with your bare hands or body.
  • Call 911.
  • Check for a pulse and perform CPR if you know how.
  • Check for burns or open wounds and apply a sterile dressing from a first aid kit, if available.
  • Keep the victim warm.
  • Wait for medical personnel and be prepared to perform CPR if breathing stops.

Best Ways To Prevent Electrical Shock

Prevention is always better than reacting to dangerous electrical shock events. Here’s what to do:

  • Turn off the power before doing any electrical work, and test circuits with a non-contact voltage tester to make sure they’re off.
  • Keep appliances like hair dryers away from water, and never touch them with wet hands.
  • Use ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) in bathrooms and kitchens where code requires.
  • Repair or replace frayed appliance and extension cords.
  • Never run extension cords through doors, windows or under carpeting.
  • Install tamper-resistant receptacles in homes with young children.
  • Don’t overload electrical receptacles and replace non-grounded receptacles. Never use adapters to bypass ungrounded receptacles.
  • Stay far away from downed power lines and warn children of the risks.