Why Do I Get an Electric Shock?

Have you ever been "shocked" when you touched a doorknob, a car-door handle, or a water fountain? Ouch! Well, then you already know something about the effects of static electricity.

A Shocking Atom

Did You Know?

What you might not know is how static electricity happens. It all starts with a tiny thing called an atom (say: ah-tum). Everything in the world is made up of atoms — from your pencil to your nose. An atom is so small you can't see it with your eyes — you'd need a special microscope. Think of atoms as building blocks for all the stuff in the world.

Each tiny atom is made up of even tinier things:

  • protons (say: pro-tahnz), which have a positive charge
  • electrons (say: ih-lek-trahnz), which have a negative charge
  • neutrons (say: noo-trahns), which have no charge

Most of the time, atoms have the same number of protons and electrons and the atom charge is neutral (not positive or negative). Static electricity is created when positive and negative charges aren't balanced. Protons and neutrons don't move around much, but electrons love to jump all over the place!

When an object (or person) has extra electrons, it has a negative charge. Things with opposite charges are always attracted to each other, so positive charges seek negative ones and negative ones seek positives. Whew! Got it?

Beware of Conductors!

If you scuff your feet on your living room rug, you pick up extra electrons and have a negative charge. Electrons move more easily through certain materials like metal, which scientists call conductors. When you touch a doorknob (or something else made of metal), which has a positive charge with few electrons, the extra electrons want to jump from you to the knob.

That tiny shock you feel is a result of the quick movement of these electrons. You can think of a shock as a river of millions of electrons flying through the air. Pretty cool, huh? Static electricity happens more often during the colder seasons because the air is drier, and it's easier to build up electrons on the skin's surface. In warmer weather, the moisture in the air helps electrons move off of you more quickly so you don't get such a big static charge.

So, the next time you get a little shock from touching a doorknob, you'll know that it's just electrons jumping around. Think of it as putting a little spark in your life!

Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: July 2010

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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