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How dangerous is lightning? Here's how to avoid injuries

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The summer thunderstorm is great theater. Lightning seems like it might have been hurled by the hand of an angry god. If it’s close, we’re treated to the sharp crack of thunder that makes us jump and the dog hide. And if it’s far away, there’s that heavy kettledrum rumble. The wind whips through. The rain comes in a frenzy. And when it’s all over and the storm has passed, we’re often treated to some of the season’s most delectable weather.

Of course, all this presumes a view of the proceedings from somewhere indoors. Being outside, with the thunder and lightning, can be perilous — and very, very wet.

Learn about the health hazards of lightning:

What is lightning?

Lightning strikes occur because the bottom part of a thundercloud acquires a negative charge relative to objects on the ground. Downward “leaders” from the charged clouds carve out columns of heated, charged particles in the air. These leaders get longer and longer, until their tips are within 30 to 50 yards of the ground. When a connection is finally made to the positively charged ground, or an object on the ground, a huge amount of current flows out of the cloud — and in a flash, there’s a lightning strike.

How dangerous is lightning?

One of the many misconceptions about getting hit by lightning is that it’s inevitably fatal. In fact, most people live to tell the tale. On average, about 60 Americans die each year from lightning strikes, but four to five times as many survive, although the injuries can be quite serious.

Another myth is that people burst into flames or, at the very least, get severely burned by lightning. In truth, there’s a “flashover” effect that keeps much of the current outside the body. Moisture on the skin may vaporize instantaneously, leaving behind first- and second-degree burns. Sometimes clothes and shoes get blown off, so the person is left nearly naked. But the flashover effect is also a lifesaver and makes deep tissue burns from lightning a rarity. Cardiac arrest, not burns, is the most common cause of death from lightning, because the electricity scrambles the electrical system of the heart.

Blue Thunder

A lightning storm moves over the metro Phoenix area of Arizona during the 2015 monsoon season. The blue hues of the lightning are from the white balance setting. The orange glow in the clouds is from the street lights of Phoenix shining up into the bottom of the storm.

We also tend to have the mistaken idea that the only danger is from a direct strike. The massive current from a lightning strike can travel through the ground and, seeking the path of least resistance, travel through a person standing nearby. People also get hurt by “splashes” of lightning. Lightning can splash from one person to another and from a tree to a person.

Survivors of lightning-related injuries may end up with an assortment of neurological and eye problems. Many victims experience bad, unrelenting headaches for several months.

Lower your chances of being struck

The chances of any one of us getting injured by lightning during our lives is vanishingly small. But if you’re outside when a storm comes through, you want to make a small chance even smaller. Here are five suggestions on lightning safety from Harvard Drs. Medley O’Keefe Gatewood and Richard Zane:

Seek shelter in a car or bus

If a car or bus gets hit, the electrical current stays on the outside of the metal shell of the vehicle. Rubber tires have nothing to do with the protection.

Seek shelter in a large structure

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Small buildings, such as bus shelters or huts on golf courses, may actually increase the risk of lightning injury if they are the tallest objects in an area. Tents may also be a danger because the metal poles could act as lightning rods.

Stay away from clearings and single trees

If you are in the woods, don’t head for a clearing because you’ll be the tallest object. Take cover in an area with small trees or bushes. And if you’re in an open area, don’t stand near an isolated tree or group of trees that could attract a strike. Instead, find a low-lying area and assume the “lightning position”: squatting with feet together and hands over the ears to protect against acoustic trauma. Gatewood and Zane said kneeling or sitting cross-legged would also be OK, since squatting can be uncomfortable.

Don’t wait until the clouds are overhead

Lightning can travel horizontally 10 miles or more in front of the storm clouds producing rain, so a strike can seem to come, literally, out of the clear blue sky. One rule of thumb is to seek shelter when the time between seeing lightning and hearing thunder is 30 seconds or less. Another one is not to resume outdoor activities until 30 minutes after the last lightning is seen or thunder heard.

Avoid faucets and landline telephones during a storm

Plumbing and telephone wires can carry current from a lightning strike. If you want to be super cautious, you should turn off electrical appliances and devices like computers before the brunt of the storm arrives.

What to do if you see someone get struck by lightning

Follow these four steps immediately to help save the life of a person who has been struck by lightning:

Call for help

Call 911 immediately. Give directions to your location and information about the person. It is safe to use a cellphone or cordless phone during a storm.

Assess the situation

Be aware of the continued lightning danger to both the person who has been struck and the rescuer. If located in a high-risk area (near an isolated tree or in an open field), you could be in danger. If necessary, move to a safer location. People who have been struck by lightning do not carry an electrical charge and can be handled safely. It is unusual for a person who has survived a lightning strike to have any major broken bones that would cause paralysis or major bleeding complications. Therefore, it might be safe to move the victim to reduce the risk of further exposure to lightning.

Respond

Lightning often causes a heart attack. Check to see if the person is breathing and has a heartbeat. The best places to check for a pulse are the carotid artery in the neck and the femoral artery in the groin. If the person is breathing normally, look for other possible injuries. Lightning can cause burns, shock and sometimes blunt trauma. Treat each of these injuries with basic first aid until help arrives.

Resuscitate

If the person is not breathing, immediately begin mouth-to-mouth rescue breaths. If they do not have a pulse, start CPR.

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