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Are generic phone chargers safe? Woman suffers neck burn after charging phone in bed

Generic cell phone chargers have been under scrutiny for causing burns and electrocutions.
The burn was likely caused when the end of the woman's generic cell phone charger touched her necklace and sent an electric current into it.
The burn was likely caused when the end of the woman's generic cell phone charger touched her necklace and sent an electric current into it.Courtesy Annals of Emergency Medicine
/ Source: TODAY

The case of a 19-year-old woman who suffered a painful burn around her neck is highlighting the potential dangers of using generic cell phone chargers.

The unnamed woman was lying in bed with the end of a generic charger — plugged into an outlet, but not into her iPhone — under her pillow, according to the Annals of Emergency Medicine, which recently featured her story.

She was wearing a long chain necklace and suddenly felt “a sudden burning sensation and severe pain around her neck.” She panicked, pulled on the necklace and broke it, then rushed to the emergency room at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor.

Doctors believe the burn was likely caused when the end of the charger touched her necklace and sent an electric current into it, causing a second-degree burn. The woman was treated, given pain medication and sent home.

The case was “unfortunate,” and could have led to an even worse outcome if it involved someone who had a pacemaker, said Dr. Leigh Vinocur, the national spokeswoman for the American College of Emergency Physicians.

“To have the charger in bed without even the phone attached to it seems crazy,” Vinocur, who was not involved in treating the patient in the case study, told TODAY.

“I’ve seen kids who sleep with their phones plugged in under their pillow and if there’s damage to the charger or there’s some kind of issue … it is worrisome.”

In another example, a Louisiana woman woke up last week with a burn on her arm after she fell asleep with her generic iPhone charger on the bed, KTBS reported.

Teens are particularly at risk

Generic cell phone chargers have been under scrutiny because of their potential risks, the case report noted.

"Generic phone chargers can cause burns or electrocutions," said lead author Dr. Carissa Bunke, a pediatric resident at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, in a statement. "Teens and adolescents are particularly at risk of injury due to their frequent mobile device use.”

Generic chargers, though popular because they are cheaper, are less likely to meet safety and quality tests than the official brand counterparts, according to the authors.

In one study, conducted by Electrical Safety First in the U.K., more than half of 64 generic chargers provided by Apple failed an electric strength test, indicating a breakdown of the insulation barrier.

In another, done by Underwriters Laboratories of Canada, 400 generic iPhone chargers were checked for electric shock safety risks. Twenty-two were immediately damaged during the testing process and only three passed an electric strength test, a 99% failure rate.

How to stay safe:

  • No matter what kind of charger it may be, don’t sleep with a phone charging in bed. Leave it on the nightstand or elsewhere.
  • Don’t leave a charger plugged in unless it is attached to a phone, tablet or other mobile device. “It's dangerous because it gives a direct line of contact from the outlet to a person's skin, increasing the risk of electrical injury,” Bunke said.
  • Be aware that the difference in safety standards and testing for generic versus brand-name chargers is “substantial,” the case report authors noted. They recommended avoiding generic chargers to reduce the risk of injury.
  • The risk exists even when plugging the original power adapter from Apple or Android into the wall, then pairing it with a generic cord, Vinocur said. The cord is the part that transmits the electricity and if the insulation fails to hold the electric flow within the cord, a shock can occur.
  • Inspect any cord for damage or frayed ends. If anything looks suspicious, don’t use the cord and get a new one.
  • Some generic brand cords are approved by Apple or Android. Third-party Apple accessories, for example, have an "MFi badge." Android brands have a "Made for Google" badge.