How an EMP Attack Would Affect Humans

An EMP isn’t likely to affect the average human body. Humans are not very good conductors of electricity and are generally resistant to any effects from an EMP. However, if you are exposed to an EMP that is strong enough, it is possible that the human body might experience some disruptions.

What Exactly is an EMP?

EMP stands for “electromagnetic pulse.” An EMP is a burst of gamma radiation that can induce surges of electrical currents into objects in the affected area. This can cause severe damage to, and even complete destruction of, modern electronics that are not built to handle the additional electrical current.

Modern society is heavily reliant on electronics to run almost every aspect of life. An EMP event has the potential to revert a modern society to something reminiscent of the dark ages in the blink of an eye.

Possible Causes of an EMP Event

There are a few very specific events that are capable of producing a large scale EMP capable of affecting an entire hemisphere of the earth. These are:

  • A nuclear detonation at a precise altitude in the atmosphere.
  • A solar flare (or coronal mass ejection – CME) from our sun.
  • Other sources in outer space such as colliding neutron stars or a supernova.

It is possible for a more localized EMPs to occur from something such as a lightning strike. This is why we have surge protectors on our electronics. Although if you are reading this article, you are likely more concerned about the more destructive sources listed above, since they have the potential to cause wide spread damage.

How an EMP Can Affect the Human Body

An EMP not only has the ability to damage electronics in a given area, it is also possible that it can affect the human body directly. Luckily, the human body is not very conductive so although effects to humans are possible, they aren’t likely unless the EMP is exceptionally strong and of an extended duration.

Some of the possible affects are:

  • Cellular mutations
  • Nervous system damage
  • Internal burns
  • Brain damage
  • Temporary problems with thinking and memory

Amir Raz, the assistant professor of clinical neuroscience at Columbia University, states that ionizing radiation–the kind found in EMP–can damage DNA and has been known to cause mutations in otherwise healthy tissues.

High levels of non-ionizing energy can also harm the function and structure of your nervous system. Just to give an example, microwave frequencies below 3,000 megahertz (or 3 gigahertz) are able to permeate your skin. When your body absorbs these microwave frequencies, you can suffer burns and even death; in essence, you’re cooking yourself.

This study from 2009, published on the National Library of Medicine’s website, discusses the effects of EMP on the cerebral microvascular permeability in rats. They found that an exposure of 200 – 400 pulses of EMP caused the leakage of microvascular vessels in the brain. This type of microvascular vessel leakage in humans has been shown to cause mild problems with thinking and memory. The effects were temporary, though still noticeable approximately 12 hours post-exposure.

In addition to the dangers of DNA damage, mutations, and burns, EMPs can also affect the blood-brain barrier. This barrier keeps your nervous system tissues protected. Disrupt that barrier and you remove another line of defense for your brain. In this 2010 study, they discovered that temperature increases of just 1°C (or 1.8°F) can have a negative effect, allowing macromolecules to penetrate the blood-brain barrier.

What Do These Studies Mean?

These studies show that it’s possible you’ll be suffering some negative effects within the first 12 hours after an EMP event. However, it is worth noting that in the majority of these studies, the level of microwave radiation exposure during testing is extremely high. Likely much higher than what you’d experience in an EMP from a nuclear blast or solar flare.

Other cosmic events however can be more devastating, and although still unlikely, are more likely to produce the types of strong EMPs capable of causing serious damage to humans.

How could the potential effects change your decision-making abilities or affect your reaction times? The answer to this question isn’t completely clear. Scientists are only just beginning to see the seriousness of the threat of EMPs. They’re finally beginning to publish studies and give warnings on this topic.

EMP effects on humans are largely unknown.
Although very unlikely, it is possible for a powerful and prolonged EMP to damage the human brain.

Could an EMP Interfere with the Brain’s Electrical Signals?

The generally accepted answer to this question is that an EMP would not have any kind of direct affect on the brain’s electrical signals to the rest of the body. There are two primary reasons for this:

  1. The human body, including the brain, is well insulated from electricity and makes for a poor electrical conductor.
  2. Signals from the brain travel through the nerves and are carried by neurons. Although there are some electrical signals involved in this process, the signal is carried more chemically than it is electrically.

It is worth noting however that there haven’t been many studies on this. There are too many factors to consider and too much variety in humans to give a blanket answer.

For example, maybe an EMP would not affect a healthy adult’s brain, however, my daughter has a seizure disorder. Since her brain doesn’t operate normally in an electrical sense, it’s possible that an EMP could affect her in unexpected ways.

I’m not about to set up that particular experiment just to sate my curiosity, but I’ll absolutely be taking precautions to make sure she’s as safe as I can manage. If you happen to have an undiagnosed brain issue, it is possible that an EMP could affect you differently than a healthy person.

Frankly, there just haven’t been enough studies to find definitive answers to whether EMPs will interfere with the electrical signals in normal brains. The U.S. government is clearly concerned about the potential damage an EMP can cause however, since they have released a congressional report about the devastating effects on an EMP on the populace.

Other Possible EMP Effects on Humans

The issues mentioned above are not the only health problems to be concerned about during an EMP event. Especially when we are talking about one generated from a nuclear explosion. This can result in radiation exposure and when coupled with the inability to access appropriate healthcare after an attack, there could be serious health concerns.

Radiation from EMPs can have lasting effects
Nuclear bombs, radiation, and EMPs go hand in hand.

Radiation Poisoning

Since EMP attacks can come with nuclear detonations in the atmosphere, you should protect yourself from widespread radiation contamination. You’ll want to protect your body from exposure as well as shielding your food and water supplies. You could easily ingest radioactive particles or come in contact with something that increases your exposure. This is especially dangerous prolonged exposure. Radiation builds up in your body, especially if you can’t get far enough away from the source. Your gastrointestinal system and bone marrow are particularly sensitive to radiation.

Symptoms of low-level radiation poisoning include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Disorientation
  • Fatigue

It’s easy to see how low-level exposure to radiation can go undiagnosed. These symptoms are all very similar to dehydration and other problems associated with high-stress survival situations.

Symptoms of high-level radiation poisoning include:

  • Hair loss
  • Bloody stools
  • Low blood pressure

Without access to medical care, death is a real possibility with high levels of radiation poisoning. It is important that you protect yourself from radiation. Check out this excellent article from the Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information to get started.

Tissue Heating

An often-overlooked element of EMP attacks is tissue heating due to radiation exposure. This is not the same as radiation poisoning. You can’t see microscopic heating of your cells, so the problems could go undiagnosed for some time.

More obvious tissue heating would result in visible burns and sores. Unfortunately, after an EMP you probably won’t be able to reach a hospital. This is where prepping can literally save your skin. Proper radiation shielding can put enough of a barrier between you and the EMP to prevent tissue heating.

Pacemakers and Other Implanted Devices

Since these are electronic devices, they are susceptible to EMP disturbances. The level of effect would depend greatly on the person’s proximity to the source of the EMP. As with radiation and regular bombs, the closer you are, the more potential for damage there is.

Unfortunately, without power grids and communications, you wouldn’t have much luck getting help for damaged medical devices. Shield yourself and your shelter from the EMP so that this is less likely to be an issue for you.

A solar flare causing an EMP on earth.
A coronal mass ejection (CME) from our sun is an extremely powerful event that can cause an EMP here on earth strong enough to affect humans.

The Real Reason EMPs Are Deadly

EMP effects on humans haven’t been as widely studied as you might imagine. What we do know is that unlike a bomb landing in your front yard, the problem with an EMP isn’t usually the explosion itself. The main issues from an EMP event comes later.

Radiation along with the ensuing panic over the loss of communications and infrastructure is where the real damage takes place. Some call this a “DOT” or Damage Over Time. For the military minds, think of this as attrition.

If you’re hurt or negatively affected by an EMP, you’re not going to care much about communications, infrastructure, or losing your progress on the latest mobile game. However, lack of communications and infrastructure will severely limit your access to medical care, food, and other basic necessities. Even a minor bodily disturbance as a result of an EMP can grow into a major issue if you’re unable to get care right away.


Although unlikely, it is clear that an EMP strong enough can have serious effects on the human body. People may laugh at the idea of an EMP event and may even call it science fiction. But it has happened before, during the Carrington Event of 1859. Even the U.S. government has acknowledged it’s potential for mass destruction. So I’d rather be prepared. It beats standing in the aftermath wishing I’d listened. Prepare your shelter ahead of time and have enough supplies on hand to handle any health issues that may crop up in the aftermath.

What are you doing to prepare for an EMP event? Share in the comments below to help out your fellow preppers!

John Walter

John Walter is an emergency preparedness consultant with eight years of experience and training in related fields. He is a passionate prepper living in the Sacramento area of California.

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