What Happens When You Get Struck by Lightning?
A lot can happen when you get struck by lightning. While some people walk away with only minor injuries, others lose their lives.
Ready to learn what happens when you get struck by lightning and how you can prevent being struck in the first place? Read through this guide for everything you need to know about lightning strike survivors, injuries, and deaths, or click on the subject you’d like to learn more about below.
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How Can Lightning Strike You?
When you think of lightning striking a person, you might imagine a strike directly hitting them. While direct strikes can hit people and even kill them, that’s not the most common way it happens. Indirect lightning strikes are responsible for most human lightning injuries and fatalities.
There are five ways lightning can strike you:
Conduction or Contact Flash (Indirect)
Side Flash (Indirect)
Ground Current (Indirect)
What is a Direct Lightning Strike?
A direct lightning strike is when lightning strikes a person directly, meaning the person becomes a part of the main lightning discharge channel.
According to our lightning scientists, direct strikes are responsible for the least amount of lightning strike fatalities and injuries, accounting for just 3%.
If you’re struck by a direct lightning strike, a portion of the current moves along and just over the skin surface. The technical phrase for this process is “flashover”. Then a portion of the current moves through the body. Normally it moves through the cardiovascular and/or the nervous systems.
When you about think being struck by lightning, a direct strike is probably what comes to mind first. While direct lightning strikes are potentially the most deadly, they are the least likely to occur.
Direct lightning strikes are almost always cloud-to-ground lightning strikes. Did you that our total lightning detection network detected 8,170,185 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes in the U.S. during the first six months of 2019 alone? That’s 8,170,185 potential direct lightning strike victims!
Direct lightning strikes often hit people open areas. These lightning strike victims often do not know a lightning threat is present.
What is Conduction?
Conduction lightning strikes happen when lightning travels through wires or metal surfaces before hitting a person. We also call these contact strikes. While metal doesn’t attract lightning, it does unfortunately provide a path for the lightning to follow.
Contact strikes account for 3% of all lightning strikes.
People both inside and outside are at risk for conduction lightning strikes if they are in contact with anything connected to metal wires, plumbing, or any other metal surfaces, like a chain-link fence. Indoors, this includes anything that plugs into an electrical outlet, water faucets and showers, corded phones, and windows and doors. Remember to always take indoor lightning safety seriously.
Lightning can travel a long distance in wiring or other metal surfaces, which is one of the many reasons why conduction lightning strikes kill people both indoors and outdoors every year. The video below shows an Earth Networks Total Lightning Network analysis of a case where a lightning strike traveled through a cell phone charging wire and struck a teenager.
What are Lightning Streamers?
Streamers are a part of most lightning strikes. We also call these upward leaders. Upward leaders are responsible for 10% of lightning fatalities.
When lightning strikes the ground, you can launch an upward leader. Trees and other tall objects can also launch upward leaders.
You do not have to be close to the strike point for this to happen. All you need to do is be in a high electric field or be close to any channel of the lightning flash. This means you can be several miles away from a lightning strike and still launch an upward leader.
What is a Side Flash?
A side flash (or side splash) occurs when lightning strikes a taller object near you and a portion of the current jumps from the taller object to your body.
Side flashes are responsible for about 33% of lightning fatalities.
Side flashes generally occur when victims are a foot or two away from the object that is struck. A lot of side flash lightning strike victims are those seeking shelter under a tree or other tall object, which is something you should never do during a thunderstorm.
You may remember hearing about a lightning strike at a PGA Tour Championship that injured six fans. They were underneath a tree when lightning struck.
A side flash is a type of indirect lightning strike.
Indirect lightning strikes are strikes that discharge their electricity into another object before hitting a person. The rest of the ways lightning can strike you in our list are all indirect lightning strikes.
What is Ground Current?
A ground current is a type of indirect lightning strike that travels to the ground before hitting a person. When lightning strikes an object, like a tree, much of the energy travels outward from the strike in and along the ground surface.
Ground current causes the most lightning deaths and injuries in both people and animals. Ground currents account for 50% of all lightning strike fatalities.
This is because ground current affects a much larger area than direct strikes, side flashes, conduction, and streamers. Anyone outdoors or on a floor made of conductive materials is at risk for a ground current strike.
Typically, lightning enters the body at the contact point closest to the lightning strike. Then it travels through the cardiovascular and/or nervous systems before exiting the body at the contact point farthest from the initial lightning strike.
Ground current lightning strikes typically go up one leg and out the other. They have about a 30 ft kill radius.
One good lightning safety tip to remember if you can’t get to shelter is to crouch low with as little of your body touching the ground as possible to minimize the impact of a ground current strike. Only do this if you cannot get to a lightning safe shelter.
What Happens When You Get Struck by Lightning?
When lightning directly or indirectly strikes a person, the lightning’s charge (300kV of electricity) and heat (50,000 degrees F) can do a lot of damage.
Lightning strikes can inflict both cardiovascular and neurological damage on the human body. If you’re struck by lightning, your lightning strike side effects could be as minor as cataracts or as serious as death.
There are a plethora of lightning strike side effects. Lightning strike side effects can be both physical, like Lichtenberg scars; and mental, like difficulty concentrating. They also range from long-term problems, like chronic nerve pain; to delayed symptoms, like personality changes.
In the next few sections, we’ll break down some of the most common lightning strike injuries and side effects. That way, you’ll know exactly what can happen if you’re ever struck by lightning.
You can also watch our video on the Medical Effects of Lightning Victims from Lightning Safety Awareness Week below.
When we talk about the mild symptoms lightning strike victims may experience, we don’t mean they are no big deal. In fact, some of these symptoms can induce a lot of pain and prompt drastic lifestyle changes for victims.
However, they are less severe than the long-term and delayed symptoms we cover a little further down in this guide. If you’re struck by lightning, some of the least-intrusive symptoms you can hope for include:
Muscle soreness or pain
Headaches and/or dizziness
Nausea and/or upset stomach
In the following sections, we’ll cover three of the most interesting mild lightning side effects: Burns, hearing loss, and vision problems.
A bolt of lightning can reach temperatures approaching 50,000 degrees F. That’s just about five times hotter than the surface of the sun. So when a lightning strike travels over a person’s skin, it will leave a mark.
Lightning burns are a type of electrical burn characterized by a unique pattern of skin lesions. People call lightning burns a bunch of different names, including Lichtenberg figures, keraunographic markings, feathering, ferning, lightning flowers, and lightning trees. These burns appear when lightning causes capillaries beneath the skin to rupture.
Lightning burns usually appear within hours of the strike though they tend to disappear within a few days. Generally, lightning burns appear on the top half of the body.
Another mild medical effect lightning strike victims often experience is hearing loss or hearing problems.
Also known as Otolaryngologic injuries, hearing injuries from lightning strikes happen when the lightning channel’s sonic shock wave causes an acoustic rupture of the tympanic membrane. This can cause permanent deafness in lightning strike victims.
Lightning strike victims can also experience vision problems. The most common lightning strike vision side effect is the development of a cataract.
The first case of a lightning-induced cataract was reported in 1722 by St. Yves. Cataracts from lightning strikes typically present themselves anywhere from 2 months to 1 year after the injury. Lightning strikes can cause both anterior and posterior coarse subcapsular opacities in the eye. These can impair vision significantly and often require surgical removal.
Our Manager of Club Safety here at Earth Networks, Brian Smack, was struck by lightning along with three of his friends. His wife, who was also struck, developed a cataract less than a year after the injury at 24-years-old. You can read Brian’s entire story on our blog.
Besides cataracts, lightning strikes can also cause corneal damage and complete blindness.
Along with the mild side effects listed above, there are plenty of long-term problems that can result from a lightning strike as well. The seven most common long-term lightning side effects include:
Slower reaction times
Chronic pain from nerve injury
Headaches that do not resolve with over-the-counter medicine
Ringing in the ears
Problems processing new information and remembering old information
Some of the most drastic lightning strike medical effects show up months or even years after the lightning injury. We refer to these as delayed symptoms.
Lightning strikes can cause serious delayed symptoms in victims, including:
Difficulty carrying a conversation
A Note on Delayed Symptoms
A large problem lightning strike victims face with delayed symptoms is making the connection between the lightning strike and the side effect. These lightning strike medical effects could take years to present themselves.
These delayed symptoms have extremely disrupting natures. A lot of times, lightning strike victims need the help of medical professionals and/or close friends and family to identify and treat the lightning strike side effect.
If someone you know is a lightning strike survivor, make sure you keep an eye out for these symptoms. Remember, it can take years for side effects like these to show up. As these are serious side effects, it’s important to seek medical attention right away.
How Does Lightning Kill People?
Unfortunately, the most serious medical side effect of lightning strikes is death. Lightning kills people by stopping their hearts.
As we briefly mentioned before, lightning strikes have a very high amplitude of 30kV. That’s 300,000 amps of electric charge. Our bodies are not equipped to handle that much charge.
When the charge from a lightning strike runs through a human heart, it interrupts the heart’s normal, regular current that makes it beat. That stops the heart. If the victim doesn’t receive quick and comprehensive medical attention, they often pass away from cardiovascular arrest.
What are the Odds of Being Struck by Lightning?
The odds of being struck by lightning aren’t as unlikely as you might think. In fact, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than win the Mega Millions.
The chance of being struck by lightning is just 1 in 10,000.
The chance of being struck by lightning in 1 in 10,000. Click To Tweet
The chance of winning the Mega Millions in 1 in 259,000,000.
How Many People Are Struck By Lightning Each Year?
To better understand the odds of being struck, you should know how many people are struck by lightning annually.
According to our friends at the National Weather Service (NWS), lightning strikes and kills an average of 43 people per year in the United States. This average comes from a 30-year time span between 1989-2018. It is also important to note that these are all the reported lightning fatalities. There could be more that are unreported.
Not everyone that gets struck by lightning dies. Lightning injures far more people than it kills. According to the NWS, lightning kills only 10% of people it strikes. In the U.S., experts estimate the annual number of lightning injuries is 243.
How Many People Are Struck By Lightning Worldwide?
That’s a little more difficult to say with certainty. We work closely with different states and institutions in India, where it’s estimated that over 2,000 people are struck and killed by lightning each year. Experts agree that a safe annual estimate for deaths worldwide is 24,000. For injuries, that number jumps to 240,000 each year.
What Do You Do If Someone Is Struck By Lightning?
If someone near you is struck by lightning the most important thing you can do is act quickly. It is important to note that lightning strike victims do not carry an electrical charge.
Since lightning strike victims are safe to touch, you should approach them immediately and get medical help as soon as possible. Here are the steps you should take if someone is struck by lightning:
People struck by lightning may suffer cardiac arrest. Immediate and aggressive resuscitation greatly improves survival rates.
It is safe to touch lightning victims. The body does not keep a charge.
If the person is unconscious and does not appear to be breathing normally, has no breath, or no pulse, use an automated external defibrillator (AED) if one is on hand. If you don’t have an AED, start CPR. Do not removed burned clothing unless necessary.
Treat for Shock, if Necessary
If the victim is conscious and needs treatment for shock, lay them down with their head slightly lower than their torso and legs. If the victim does not seem to be in shock and can move, move to a lightning safe shelter like a grounded building or vehicle.
Once medical professionals arrive on the scene, they will assess the victim’s condition and bring them to a hospital or nearby medical center. Once there, they will examine the victim for internal or neurological injuries and burns.
Acting quickly after someone is struck by lightning can save lives.
You can see the importance of a quick response in the video below. A man was walking his dogs when lightning struck him, knocking him out and sending him crashing into the concrete. Luckily, people nearby rushed to his aid. They performed CPR and called 911, saving the man’s life. You can read the full story on ABC News.
Shocking surveillance video shows a man struck by lightning while walking his dogs, seconds before three good Samaritans rushed to his aid and saved his life. https://t.co/LpqWmVAW14 pic.twitter.com/ZhM0WBYhbG
— ABC News (@ABC) October 5, 2019
How Can I Protect Myself and Others from Being Struck by Lightning?
Now that you know how much damage a lightning strike can do, it’s time to protect yourself and others from it. There is no way to stop a lightning strike from happening, so how do you protect people? Our experts think there are two steps.
Learn How Lightning Forms
The first step in preventing lightning strike injuries and fatalities is understanding how lightning forms. The more you can learn about lightning, how it forms, and when it’s most dangerous, the safer you and those around you will be. Head over to our Lightning Facts page to learn everything from how lightning forms to common lightning myths so you can give yourself a strong lightning safety foundation rooted in scientific facts.
Learn How To Protect Yourself and Others With Lightning Detection
As you continue to learn about lightning, you’ll start to understand that there is no way to protect people, organizations, and infrastructure from lightning strikes without the right technology. There are many lightning safety tools like weather maps, lightning apps, horns, strobes, and special alerts, but they only work if they use total lightning detection. What is total lightning detection and why is it necessary for comprehensive lightning safety? Check out our Lightning Detection page to find out.