It’s summer in the South. And you know what that means – weather that can go from pleasant to perilous in an instant. Thunderstorms can quickly roll in, packing an electrically-charged punch -- lightning. Christopher Griggs, MD, an emergency medicine with Atrium Health, discusses what to do to stay safe from one of Mother Nature’s most powerful forces.

News, Your Health | 20 days ago

What Happens To the Human Body When it's Struck by Lightning?

It’s summer in the South. And you know what that means – weather that can go from pleasant to perilous in an instant. Thunderstorms can quickly roll in, packing an electrically-charged punch -- lightning. Christopher Griggs, MD, an emergency medicine physician with Atrium Health, discusses what to do to stay safe from one of Mother Nature’s most powerful forces.

It happens more than 25 million times in the United States and it’s one of the most awesome forces in nature, lightning. But these discharges of energy are also one of the most destructive. Although lightning strikes are scarce, North Carolina ranks as one of the more dangerous states for lightning fatalities (15 deaths) in the country (4th most since 2008) – according to statistics from the National Weather Service.

Although they last just 0.1 to 0.01 seconds, lightning strikes carry an amount of energy greater than 10 million volts. To put that in perspective, a high voltage power line is usually 100,000 volts or greater and a typical home electrical outlet is 110 volts. And the peak temperature of a lightning bolt – 30,000 degrees on the Kelvin scale – or about five times hotter than the surface of the sun.

Injuries to the Body

“It’s a rare but dangerous injury,” says Christopher Griggs, MD, an emergency medicine physician with Atrium Health. “When we do see it – the injuries can range anywhere from a mild burn on your body to damage to your brain to death. It really depends on how close you are and how exposed you were to the lightning strike.”

Dr. Griggs says if a person is struck by lightning, it can cause cardiac arrest, which stops a person’s body from circulating blood and cause direct injury to the brain and nervous system, preventing the brain from being able to send the appropriate signals to tell the body to continue breathing.

Strikes can also cause a brain hemorrhage or stroke, as well as tissue injuries and deep thermal burns within the body. Dr. Griggs says tissue near bones can suffer the worst damage since a person’s bones are the most resistant part of the body to the lightning.

Certainly neurological and muscle injuries can also impact a person throughout the rest of their life. Those who have suffered a muscle injury are at risk of developing rhabdomyolysis, a condition where a person’s muscle begins to break down, resulting in a toxic protein flooding the bloodstream and potentially causing kidney damage.

But even if you’re just near the site of a lightning strike, you can still experience damage. Ruptured eardrums can occur from the thunderous sound waves created by the nearby strike. Also minor thermal burns and nervous system damage can occur through an indirect strike, where the body is only exposed to a fraction of the energy of the lightning.

“It really all depends on how direct the strike is,” Dr. Griggs says. “A person can survive a direct strike – it really depends on how much energy traveled through the body and what organs were affected.”

How to Respond

If you’ve witnessed someone struck by lightning, Dr. Griggs says to call 9-1-1 immediately. After someone is struck by lightning – unless there is still an immediate weather danger – they pose no threat to responders.

If a group of people are struck by lightning – a mass casualty event – and you are trained in CPR, Dr. Griggs says to begin resuscitating first those who appear dead.

In a mass casualty event, medical professionals usually prioritize the living first, since resources are scarce. However, in a mass lightning strike, those that appear the most dead (i.e. no pulse and not breathing) still have a good chance of surviving if they receive prompt, high-quality CPR. An automated external defibrillator (AED) can also be used, if accessible, to treat arrhythmias that can results from a lightning strike.

Your Best Bet: Stay Indoors

But the best way to stay safe in the event of a lightning strike – stay indoors.

“Find a contained space, some place with a structure all around you, like a building or house,” Dr. Griggs says. “If you’re outdoors and do not have access to a building, try to find somewhere like a picnic pavilion – which would be safer than standing under a tree or in a tent.”

And when you’ve made it inside, try and stay away from windows and outlets, Dr. Griggs adds.

Tall objects are often struck by lightning so avoid standing near the tallest object, like a tree. If you are in a forest, it is best to stay as far away from the trees as possible. If you are in an open field with scattered trees, better to sit on the ground away from the trees if you cannot find shelter. Bodies of water are especially dangerous places in lightning storms. Lakes, rivers and bays can act as conductor and you can receive an indirect strike if you are standing in the water.

Sometimes the greatest risk can be to those who are outdoors ahead of a storm. You may have a false sense of security because the rain has not started, and the clouds are far off, but lightning can often precede or follow the core of a storm, striking locations up to 10 miles away.

As for those who have been unlucky enough to have been struck by lightning more than once, Dr. Griggs says it’s likely they’re not cursed, just careless.

“I don’t think they have bad luck,” Dr. Griggs says, “it just may be their behavior that puts them at a greater risk, like choosing to be outdoors when a lightning storm is rolling in.”