An electric shock can occur upon contact of a human’s body with any source of voltage high enough to cause sufficient current through the muscles or hair. The minimum current a human can feel is thought to be about 1 milliampere (mA). The current may cause tissue damage or fibrillation if it is sufficiently high. Death caused by an electric shock is referred to as electrocution.
The perception of electric shock can be different depending on the voltage, duration, current, path taken, frequency, etc. Current entering the hand has a threshold of perception of about 5 to 10 mA (milliampere) for DC and about 1 to 10 mA for AC at 60 Hz. Shock perception declines with increasing frequency, ultimately disappearing at frequencies above 15-20 kHz.
Heating due to resistance can cause extensive and deep burns. Voltage levels of 500 to 1000 volts tend to cause internal burns due to the large energy (which is proportional to the duration multiplied by the square of the voltage) available from the source. Damage due to current is through tissue heating. In some cases 16 volts might be fatal to a human being when the electricity passes through organs such as the heart.
A low-voltage (110 to 220 V), 50 or 60-Hz AC current through the chest for a fraction of a second may induce ventricular fibrillation at currents as low as 60 mA. With DC, 300 to 500 mA is required. If the current has a direct pathway to the heart (e.g., via a cardiac catheter or other kind of electrode), a much lower current of less than 1 mA, (AC or DC) can cause fibrillation. Fibrillations are usually lethal because all the heart muscle cells move independently. Above 200 mA, muscle contractions are so strong that the heart muscles cannot move at all.
Current can cause interference with nervous control, especially over the heart and lungs. Repeated or severe electric shock which does not lead to death has been shown to cause neuropathy.
When the current path is through the head, it appears that, with sufficient current, loss of consciousness almost always occurs swiftly. (This is borne out by some limited self-experimentation by early designers of the electric chair and by research from the field of animal husbandry, where electric stunning has been extensively studied).