Lightning can kill! From 2006 through 2013, 261 people were struck and killed by lightning in the United States. Most of those deaths occurred to people who were enjoying outside activities including sporting events, family get-togethers, fishing, boating, beach and lake activities, etc.
Males accounted for 81% of lightning deaths and most occurred between the ages of 10 and 60.
Most deaths from lightening occur during the months of June, July and August since this is the peak of storm season and when most outside activities are taking place.
When these lightning strikes occurred most people were on their way to a safer environment or seconds away from getting there. Being aware of storm activity before scheduling an outside event will greatly reduce the risk of a strike.
In order to understand why these deaths occur various factors have to be looked at including:
- Willingness to cancel or postpone activities: Most people don't like to postpone or cancel their plans. For any activity where a safe place is not available, there is no safe alternative but to cancel or postpone the activity in advance or as soon as thunderstorms are imminent.
- Being aware of approaching or developing storms: Environment such as trees, mountains or buildings can impair a person's ability to view the horizon and limit the ability to watch for signs of developing storms. Surrounding noise can contribute also. Make sure to check the weather service for any developing storms in the area in which you will be.
- Vulnerability of the activity: Being outdoors anytime during a thunderstorm is dangerous especially in open areas such as sports fields or on the water.
- Ability and willingness to get in a safe place quickly: Many people wait to long to get to safety hoping the storm will pass with no danger involved. Many people that are struck by lightning are in the process of getting to safety and some are just seconds away. Don't delay, head to safety immediately when danger is forecasted.
Five Ways Lightening Strikes People
- Direct Strike: A person struck directly by lightning becomes a part of the main lightening discharge channel. Most often, direct strikes are not as common as the other ways people are struck by lightning, but they are potentially the most deadly. In most direct strikes, a portion of the current moves along and just over the skin surface (called flashover) and a portion of the current moves through the body-usually through the cardiovascular and/or nervous systems. The heat produced when lightening moves over the skin can produce burns, but the current moving through the body is of greatest concern. While the ability to survive any lightning strike is related to immediate medical attention, the amount of current moving through the body is also a factor.
- Side Flash: A side flash (also called a side splash) occurs when lightning strikes a taller object near the victim and a portion of the current jumps from taller object to the victim. In essence, the person acts as a "short circuit" for some of the energy in the lightning discharge. Side flashes generally occur when the victim is within a foot or two of the object that is struck. Most often, side flash victims have taken shelter under a tree to avoid rain or hail.
- Ground current: When lightning strikes a tree or other object, much of the energy travels outward from the strike in and along the ground surface. This is known as the ground current. Anyone outside near a lightning strike is potentially a victim of a ground current. In addition, ground current can travel in garage floors with conductive materials. Because the ground current affects a much larger area than the other causes of lightning casualties, the ground current causes the most lightning deaths and injuries. Ground current also kills many farm animals. Typically, the lightning enters the body at the contact point closest to the lightning strike, travels through the cardiovascular and/or nervous systems and exits the body at the contact point farthest from the lightning. The greater the distance between contact points, the greater the potential for death or serious injury. Because large farm animals have a relatively large body-span, ground current from a nearby lightening strike is often fatal to livestock.
- Conduction: Lightning can travel long distances in wires or other metal surfaces. Metal does not attract lightning, but it does provide a path for the lightning to follow. Most indoor lightning casualties and some outdoor casualties are due to conduction. Whether inside or outside, anyone in contact with anything connected to metal wires, plumbing, or metal surfaces that extend outside is at risk. This includes anything that plugs into an electrical outlet, water faucets and showers, corded phones, and windows and doors.
- Streamers: While not as common as the other types of lightning injuries, people caught in 'streamers" are at risk of being killed or injured by lightning. Streamers develop as the downward leader approaches the ground. Typically, only one of the streamers makes contact with the leader as it approaches the ground and provides the path for the bright return stroke; however, when the main channel discharges, so do all the other streamers in the area. If a person is part of one of these streamers, they could be killed or injured.
If caught outdoors:
Avoid putting yourself above the surrounding landscape. Seek shelter in low-lying areas such as valleys, ditches and depressions but be aware of flooding.
Stay away from water. Don't go boating or swimming if a storm threatens, and get to land as quickly as possible if you are already on the water. Lightning can strike the water and travel a substantial distance from its point of contact.
Stay away from objects that conduct electricity, such as tractors, golf carts, golf clubs, metal fences, motorcycles, lawn mowers and bicycles.
Avoid being the highest point in an open area. Swinging a golf club, or holding an umbrella or fishing rod can make you the tallest object and a target for lightning.
You are safe inside a car during lightning, but be aware of downed power lines which may be touching your car. You are safe inside the car, but you may receive a shock if you step outside.
Keep alert for flash floods, sometimes caused by heavy rainfall, if seeking shelter in a ditch or low-lying area.
Before the storm hits, disconnect electrical appliances including radios and television sets. Do not touch them during the storm.
Don't go outside unless absolutely necessary.
Keep as many walls as possible between you and the outside.
Don't handle electrical equipment or telephones. The electrical current from the lightning strike will travel through wires and cords and if you are directly connected with them, you could be struck. Use battery operated appliances only. Cordless telephones are safe however you could receive a very loud noise on the phone which may seem like a shock. This would be consistent with the house or somewhere nearby being struck by lightning.
When lightning strikes
Several things can happen if you or someone around you is struck by lightning. Be aware of what can happen.
- Deep entry and exit wounds can occur where the lightning strikes the body and then exits the body. The wounds are sometimes accompanied by severe burns. Also, Lichtenberg scarring can occur over large areas of the body, often in bizarre fractal patterns, as a result of bursting blood vessels.
- The heat associated with the lightning strike can cause clothing to catch on fire. In addition, clothes can be shredded by the explosive force of air being superheated by the lightning bolt.
- The force of lightning exiting a person’s foot can easily blow off shoes.
- The electric discharge of a lightning strike can instantly stop the heart and cause cardiac arrest.
- Brain damage and comas can occur if the electric current enters the skull. The associated heat from the electric current literally cooks brain cells.
- Nerves can be damaged or destroyed by the lightning’s electric discharge which can then lead to permanent paralysis or numbness in limbs.
- Ruptured eardrums are very common with lightning strike victims.
- Large pieces of jewelry, chains, and under wire bras may channel the electric current from a lightning strike. If the metallic items described above encounter lightning, the metal can superheat which will often burn and sear the skin.
- Some victims are left with constant muscle twitches and Parkinson’s Disease type symptoms.
- And, of course, death can occur. The majority of lightning strike victims do survive, but many will experience one or more of the issues described above.
Follow these first aid steps immediately is someone is struck by lightning:
- Go or call for medical help immediately.
- Call 911 immediately.
- Assess the situation
- Check for breathing and heartbeat
- Administer CPR
A lightning strike can occur anywhere at anytime. Be aware of your surroundings, weather reports and remember no activity or event is as important as your safety.