When Lightning Strikes

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

The weather outside is frightful, inside it’s so delightful… it’s awfully early in the year to sing this song, but it’s what came to mind as I was researching this story on a particular hazard of summertime weather — lightning. It’s far more “frightful” than snow or ice — lightning can kill you instantly. While some of us may already know exactly what to do when there’s lightning around, it’s remarkable how many people don’t know or simple don’t take lightning seriously enough. I decided to seek out the latest information on staying safe.

A Bolt from the Blue

In the summer months, lightning is predictably unpredictable — there’s lots of it and you don’t always see it coming. You’ve heard the term “a bolt from the blue”… it derives from the fact that lightning has been known to light up a bright blue sky (though not so often as a dark and stormy one), and it can travel as far as 10 miles, not only vertically but horizontally as well. Hot summer weather raises the likelihood of thunderstorms, which always bring lightning (whether you see it or not).

According to the National Weather Service, lightning strikes ground some 25 million times a year here in the US, hitting an estimated 400 people and killing about 40, who typically die from severe burns, cardiac arrest and/or respiratory arrest. While 90% of those who have been hit by lightning survive, they often suffer serious side effects that can include paralysis, internal and external burns, deafness, ringing in ears, amnesia and/or confusion, personality change, depression, sleep disturbances, memory dysfunction, headache, fatigue, joint stiffness and muscle spasms.

To learn how to stay safe and what to do if you’re ever with someone struck by lightning, I consulted our contributing medical editor Richard O’Brien, MD, an emergency physician in Scranton, Pennsylvania, who told me he sees lightning victims every summer.

While everyone seems to understand that lightning is dangerous, many are unclear on what they need to do to protect themselves. So, one by one, we went through the facts that are most important to know…

Are You Grounded?

The most important thing to understand about lightning, said Dr. O’Brien, is that it wants to find a way to get into the earth — it’s called “grounding.” The human body, water and metal all are excellent conductors of electricity and will get it to ground very effectively. Rubber, concrete and wood, on the other hand, are protective.

“When thunder roars, go indoors.” This is the catchy phrase that the National Weather Service uses to educate people on the most important thing you can do to stay safe from lightning — get out of its way. Get inside a safe building (one that is fully enclosed with a roof, walls, electricity and plumbing) or seek shelter in a car with a metal roof and the windows up (not a convertible, even with the roof up). “There is no such thing as being safe outdoors in a thunderstorm,” said Dr. O’Brien. Even if you are inside, remember that lightning has been known to strike through glass. Stay as far away as possible from windows and skylights. Lightning also has been known to strike through electrical outlets. If it hits an outside wire (phone/cable/electric), it can conduct into the jacks in the house, Dr. O’Brien explains.

Stay dry and disconnected. You can use a cell or cordless phone safely during a thunderstorm as long as the handset is not plugged in or attached to the base. Note that by using a cordless phone you still risk drawing an electrical surge to the base and destroying it. Under no circumstances should you talk on a landline. Any electrical device, handheld or otherwise including an electric stove, is a magnet for lightning, especially when it is using power. Stay out of the shower or bath and don’t use the sinks. “Lightning can come through the plumbing,” notes Dr. O’Brien. “If it hits the house, it looks for ground (your metal pipes) and if you’re in the shower, naked and wet, you’ve had it.” If you must go outdoors, remember there is no such thing as safe phone use — even a cell or cordless.

Be patient. Wait to go outdoors until you’ve heard no thunder for 30 minutes.

If Lightning Strikes …

If you or someone near to you is struck by lightning, get help immediately. Call 9-1-1 (from a safe location if there is one!). If the person is unconscious and without a pulse, perform CPR. The 911 operator can help with advice as well. As a quick guide to CPR, the American Heart Association says to use both hands and push on the chest “hard and fast” to the tempo of the old Bee Gees song Stayin’ Alive.

There’s no need to fear being electrocuted yourself if you touch a person who has been struck by lightning, said Dr. O’Brien — but you do need to protect yourself from another bolt of lightning. Take whatever measures you can to get yourself and the victim out of danger as fast as possible.

During these summer months, it’s important to be aware that lightning is a clear and present danger — take it seriously!


Richard O’Brien, MD, attending emergency physician at Moses Taylor Hospital, and associate professor of emergency medicine at The Commonwealth Medical College of Pennsylvania, both in Scranton.