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How Lightning Affects the Human Body

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Lightning flashes over a neighborhood at night

The odds of being struck by lightning are less than one in a million. Most people hit by lightning survive, but they often suffer devastating injuries and permanent disabilities.

The best survival strategy is to avoid being exposed in the first place.

Rule number one is to head indoors when you hear thunder. Don’t be lulled into thinking you’re safe because thunder seems distant; lightning often strikes several miles from the thunderstorm cloud. If you can hear thunder, you can be struck by lightning.

If you’re stuck out in the open, find the lowest ground you can, crouch down but don’t lie down (minimize contact with the ground). Stay away from water, objects that conduct electricity and tall objects such as utility poles and trees.

In a well-publicized tragedy, lightning killed three people and critically injured another as they took shelter from a storm under a tree across from the White House in Washington D.C. The survivor suffered extensive nerve damage and burns from lightning that sent hundreds of millions of volts of electricity surging through the tree into the ground where the victims were standing.

Such fatalities are relatively rare. The National Weather Service says the United States averaged 43 lightning deaths annually over 30 years through 2018.

Medical Risks of Lightning

According to the weather service, when lightning strikes a person:

  • The primary injury is to the nervous system, including brain injuries. Lightning can also cause cardiac arrest.
  • Milder symptoms may include muscle soreness, headache, nausea, confusion, memory issues, dizziness and balance problems.
  • Longer-term problems may include cognitive impairment, slow reaction time, irritability, memory problems, chronic pain, headache, sleep problems, ringing in the ears, depression and personality changes.

Other Lightning Facts

  • Lightning is hotter than the surface of the sun. It can reach temperatures of 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • About 40 million lightning strikes hit the ground in the United States each year. Ground current causes most lightening deaths and injuries. Ground current also kills many farm animals.
  • About 10 percent of people struck by lightning are killed.
  • Most fatalities occur among people engaged in outdoor leisure activities such as fishing, boating and playing sports, and people working outside.
  • About one-third of lightning injuries occur indoors. During a storm, stay away from electrical equipment, sinks, baths, faucets, concrete walls and floors, windows and doors.

Related Links

At University Hospitals, we provide care at every level from on-demand care to emergencies - and everything in between. Making the best healthcare decisions for your family starts with knowing where to go. Learn more.

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