Can an Electric Shock From a Plug Kill You? – Facts

Written by Edwin Jones / Fact checked by Andrew Wright

Electric shocks are a real risk that comes closer to us as we modernize our homes. More appliances connect to the outlet these days, and they are more powerful than their previous models. Thus, the demand for electrical safety is greater than ever before to prevent injuries, including death.

But can an electric shock from a plug kill you? Yes, you can die from electric shock from low voltage outlets through cardiac arrhythmias in certain circumstances.

How Much Electricity Can Kill a Person?

Death is possible when a person experiences an electric shock, even as low as 50 milliamps (or 0.050 amps) flowing through the heart.

At this range, the heart might possibly experience ventricular fibrillation, the most common form of cardiac arrhythmia that can kill.

At 100 milliamps, the heart will surely experience ventricular fibrillation and will cause death by electric shock. At 200 amps, the heart can stop contracting instead of having irregular heartbeats.

How much are 50 milliamps? To put it in perspective, remember that common 120-volt household outlets can carry as much as 15 amps (15,000 milliamps) or 20 amps (20,000 milliamps). Clearly, the maximum amount of current that an outlet carry can possibly bring you 50 milliamps without tripping the breaker.

However, it’s not that easy to get a fatal electric outlet shock. Our dry skin has a very high resistance – from 100,000 to 300,000 ohms per square centimeter. If we calculate how much current may possibly flow through dry skin from a 110-volt outlet, it would be:

I = V/R = (120 volts) / (100,000 ohms) = 0.0012 amps = 1.2 milliamps

That amount of current – 1.1 milliamps – is just a minor electric shock that causes a faint tingle. Our dry skin has enough resistance to prevent a deadly current from flowing to your heart.

That amount of current – 1.1 milliamps – is just a minor electric shock that causes a faint tingle. Our dry skin has enough resistance to prevent a deadly current from flowing to your heart. It’s a different situation, though, when your skin is wet.

The resistance of skin when it’s wet dramatically decreases to as low as 1 percent of dry skin resistance.

If we set the dry skin resistance at 100,000 ohms per square centimeter, wet skin resistance can be as low as 1,000 ohms per square centimeter.

Can an electric shock from an outlet kill you if your skin is wet? Well, if we calculate how much current may flow through wet skin from a 110-volt outlet, it would be:

I = V/R = (120 volts) / (1,000 ohms) = 0.12 amps = 120 milliamps

Clearly, you can die from an electric shock when your skin is wet (even just sweaty). That’s why you should never touch plugged appliances when your skin is wet.

Electricity flows in a closed circuit. The current travels through conductors and the loads in the circuit while the voltage pushes electricity to flow.

• An electric shock happens when you become part of the closed circuit.

Your body parts become a conductor, and current travels to your body either to the other live terminal of the circuit or to the ground, whichever looks easier for the current to flow out to.

• If you have high resistance (aka, when your skin is dry), the voltage would not be enough to push a lot of current to your body.

This is why a 9-volt battery cannot kill you – it does not have enough voltage to push a current through your skin. But based on our previous calculations, a 120-volt outlet can push current to your body, especially when your skin is wet.

• The stronger the current, the more profound the effect of electric shock on human body would be.

You won’t feel anything below 1 milliamp. Still, you can feel a faint tingle around 1 milliamp and a disturbing shock around 5 milliamps. Painful shocks can happen around 6 milliamps and you would not be able to let go of the current source when you reach 9 milliamps.

Reasons for Getting an Electric Shock

1. Damaged circuits in appliances

When your appliances have damaged circuits, the current flowing through the appliance can escape the insulation of conductors and flow to you. Always check appliances for damages to their wires, cords, and other electrical components before plugging them in.

2. Ungrounded outlets

One of the safety features of newer outlets is the ground prong. When appliances are grounded, leaking electricity can travel to the ground prong to the ground instead of traveling through you to the ground. However, older outlets might not have a ground prong, so be careful.

3. Wet skin

As we have explained earlier, your skin has a lot of resistance when it’s dry. It decreases, though, to one percent when it’s wet. Always dry yourself before touching any electrical appliance or outlet.

4. Faulty outlet or appliances

In addition, old or faulty appliances frequently fail to transfer electricity effectively and securely. As a result, handling it while it is plugged in may result in an electric shock. The same is true for a faulty switch, so inspect your home electric appliances carefully.

What Happens When I Get Shocked?

The effect varies depending on how much your current passes through your body. OSHA breaks the feeling of electric shock and other electric shock injuries down to the following:

• 1 mA – slight tingle
• 5 mA – disturbing shock
• 6 mA to 25 mA – painful shock with involuntary muscle movement
• 9 mA to 30 mA – you won’t be able to let go
• 50 mA to 150 mA – death is possible due to respiratory arrest or cardiac arrhythmia
• 200 mA – heart stops, possible severe burns
• 1000 mA or greater – nerve damage occurs, irreversible organ damage
• 10,000 mA or greater – severe burns, cardiac arrest

The path the current took in your body will also determine what happens when you are electrocuted. If the current passes through the chest, you can experience lung and heart damage. If the current passes through the head, you can experience nervous system damage.

When intense shocks occur, symptoms of too much electricity in the body may not be visibly seen. Intense shocks may cause hidden damage like damage to blood vessels or multiple organ failure.

Effects of Electric Shock

If you are getting electrocuted side effects can be short-term and long-term especially if the shock is intense.

• Short-term effects have been discussed earlier – from slight tingles to involuntary muscle movements, cardiac arrhythmia, organ damage, burns, and even death. Also, an electric shock cannot kill you days later, but it might have consequences.
• Long-term effects of electric shock may either be physical, psychological, or neurological. Not all of these may occur, and they may not appear immediately.

Physical long-term effects include cataracts, ghost pains, muscle spasms and stiff joints.

Psychological effects include PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), depression, and memory loss. Neurological effects include seizures, dizziness, numbness due to damaged nerves, or even paralysis.

What Should I Do When a Person Gets Shocked?

Remember that someone who experiences an electric shock is part of the closed electric circuit. That’s why the first thing you should do is to break the circuit. However, do not touch someone who is still actively getting electrocuted.

1. Try to switch the circuit breaker to open the circuit. If that cannot be done, try to push away the victim using a non-conducting item like plastic or wood.

2. Call the emergency hotline number so medical practitioners can respond.

3. Do not move the victim of an electric shock unless the victim is in urgent danger.

4. If you can do CPR, start performing it when the person does not look like he/she is breathing.

Tips to Protect Yourself From Electric Shock

1. Check for damaged cords in electric appliances. Avoid using spliced wires or damaged insulation.

2. Use three-prong outlets to allow the ground pin to divert leaking electricity to the ground. Do not cut off the third prong of an appliance just to make it fit a two-prong outlet.

3. Use a GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) outlet in wet locations like the bathroom or the kitchen. A GFCI can detect even as low as 6 mA electric leak and can cut the circuit before a shock deals significant damage.

4. Do not touch electrical items when your skin is wet. This includes outlets, cords, appliances and power lines.

Conclusion

An electric shock from an outlet can definitely kill you. These low-voltage sources can deliver even 50 milliamps of current to your heart to cause cardiac arrhythmia, and higher amounts of current can give you other injuries.

So the next time you ask yourself can an electric shock from a plug kill you, don’t forget to dry your skin when handling electrical devices. Also, ensure all your electrical wiring and outlets are safe and up to code.