By Drs. Sally Robinson and Keith Bly

Electric shocks cause about 1,000 deaths in the United States each year. These injuries may occur when electricity passes through the body from a mechanical source or from lightning. Lightning accounts for about one-fifth of all deaths from electrical shock.

Only about 3 percent to 15 percent of people who suffer electrical injuries will die, though many of them may suffer amputation or may be disfigured by burns resulting from the electrical shock.

Children, especially toddlers, may be electrocuted when they bite into electrical cords, poke metal objects into unprotected outlets or appliances or use electric toys or appliances incorrectly. Shock can also occur when electric current comes into contact with water in which a person is sitting or standing.

Severity of an electrical shock injury depends on several factors: the voltage, the amount of current, the body’s resistance to the current, where the current entered the body and how long the body remained in contact with the current. Household appliances are low-voltage sources and are less likely to cause serious injury if one is exposed to their current, but even low voltage can cause death, depending on how these factors interact. Thin or wet skin is much less resistant to electrical current, meaning that the current can cause little or no damage to the skin, while severely burning internal organs and tissues.

The nervous system is especially at risk for injury due to electrical shock. Neurological problems are the most common type of injury suffered after exposure to an electrical current. Nerve damage may be minor and disappear on its own, or with medical treatment, or it may be severe and permanent.

Electricity’s effects on the respiratory and cardiovascular systems are the most life threatening. Electrical currents can paralyze the respiratory system and change the way the heart beats, which may result in instant death. Small veins and arteries can develop clots within them, which may damage the tissues to which they supply blood. Without blood, those tissues may need to be amputated.

If your child comes into contact with electricity, turn the power off first, by pulling the plug or turning off the switch, if possible. If this is not possible, try to remove the source of electricity with something that does not conduct it, such as a dry stick, an insulated tool, a rope or a rolled-up newspaper.

Try to pull the child away from the source of electric current if you cannot remove the source itself. Do not touch the child with your bare hands when she is attached to the source of the current.

As soon as the child is removed from the source, or the current is turned off, check her breathing, pulse, skin color and ability to respond. If the child is not breathing or her heart has stopped beating or is beating rapidly or irregularly, immediately begin CPR and have someone call 911. However, you should not move the child, because spinal fracture can occur with severe electrical shock.

To prevent electrical shock, look around for any potential dangers, such as:

· Damaged appliances, wiring, electric cords and plugs should be repaired or replaced. Only a person with appropriate skills should make repairs.

· Hair dryers, radios or other electrical appliances should never be used in the bathroom or anywhere that they might be exposed to water.

· Electrical outlets should be covered with plastic safety covers.

· If you hear thunder and are outdoors, you should go indoors or seek shelter as quickly as possible, even if it is not raining. Move away from tall or metallic structures during a thunderstorm.

· Telephones, computers, hair dryers and other appliances should not be used during thunderstorms, as they can conduct electrical currents from lightning.

Dr. Sally Robinson is a pediatrician in the division of children’s special services at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She teaches medical students about caring for children with chronic medical conditions. Dr. Keith Bly is a hospitalist and assistant professor of pediatrics at UTMB.

The Your Health column is written by health and medical experts at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The column focuses on topical health issues that we believe are of interest to your readers. It is e-mailed every Tuesday. If you have any questions about the column, or would like to suggest topics, please contact John Koloen, media relations specialist, at (409) 772-8790 or email jskoloen@utmb.edu.