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A few shocking truths (and safety tips) about lightning

Lightning injures hundreds of people in the United States each year. Most survive their injuries, some don’t. Here’s what you need to know.

In 2017, the U.S. death toll from lightning was 16 — an all-time low. We’re unlikely to see a similarly low number in 2018, however.

Earlier this month, a 15-year-old Minnesota teen was struck by lightning while sitting on his bed in a small “bunkhouse” cabin on North Long Lake in Brainerd. A lightning bolt hit the roof of the cabin, sending a charge down the building’s wall and into the boy’s bed — and body.

“The most odd burning sensation went through my whole body, and the lightning itself lifted me off my bed. And I looked at my bed and it was on fire,” the boy told WCCO reporter Jeff Wagner

Lightning injures hundreds of people in the United States each year, according to the National Weather Service. Most — like the Brainerd teen — survive their injuries, but some don’t.

Fortunately, the number of U.S. deaths caused by lightning has dropped dramatically in recent years, thanks in large part to a lightning safety campaign launched by the National Weather Service in 2001. The average number of deaths in the 10 years before the campaign was 55. The current 10-year average is 27. 

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In 2017, the U.S. death toll from lightning was 16 — an all-time low. We’re unlikely to see a similarly low number in 2018, however. There have already been 15 deaths this year, and we’re not yet through summer, when lightning strikes peak.

The cause of most deaths

In an article published online this week in Emergency Physicians Monthly, Dr. Ben Mattingly, an emergency physician who overseas a wilderness medicine program at Tufts University, highlights one of the (ahem) “shocking” truths about lightning strikes: Contrary to what most people believe, lightning victims usually die from sudden cardiac arrest (a malfunction of the heart that causes it to stop beating) rather than electrical “burns.”

Lightning tends to spread over the body and into its cavities, causing the eardrums to rupture, the heart to stop beating and the lungs and respiratory system to shut down, he explains. People are also at risk of suffering blunt physical trauma from being thrown.

But, Mattingly stresses, most of the consequences of lightning strikes are neurological. 

Long-term neurological symptoms can include headaches, difficulty concentrating, short-term memory problems and even personality changes. 

Sometimes, Mattingly adds, a lightening strike will damage the central nervous system in a way that causes a temporary paralysis — called keraunoparalysis — which resembles spinal cord injuries.

Because the biggest danger from lightning is cardiac arrest, Mattingly recommends that people practice “reverse triage” when in a situation where more than one person has been struck and injured: “Whereas in most multi-casualty events, the dead are ignored and you focus on those you may be able to prevent from dying, … [w]ith lightning injuries, you should actually go to the sickest and/or unresponsive ‘dead’ patients first, as often times their temporary arrest will recover with good bystander CPR. 

“Be sure to continue respiratory support if needed as often the cardiac arrest is shorter than the respiratory paralysis and if not addressed can lead to a secondary arrest,” he adds. “In addition, lightning strikes often cause fixed and dilated pupils and should not change your decision to pursue CPR.”

When thunder roars, go indoors

The most common type of lightning strike is a “side splash” — where the lightening “bounces” off an object and then strikes the person. 

“When sustaining a direct strike, patients are more likely to have poor outcomes that result in death, but luckily only about 3–5 percent of strikes are direct,” says Mattingly. 

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“Other types of injuries can be found from contacting an object that is struck or from the electricity traveling as ground current,” he adds. “Although there are many ‘rules’ about predicting how far away a storm is and whether it is safe to be outside, just remember, if you hear thunder or see lightning you are at risk of being struck. Obey the saying, ‘When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors.’”

Yet, as the Brainerd teen’s experience illustrates, not all buildings are safe. The National Weather Service says a safe building is one with four walls, a floor, a roof and plumbing and wiring. (But stay away from that plumbing and wiring.)

Non-safe buildings include carports, open garages, covered patios, picnic shelters, beach pavilions, golf shelters, tents, baseball dugouts, sheds and greenhouses.

Additional safety tips

Here are some other safety tips from the National Weather Service:

  • NO PLACE outside is safe when thunderstorms are in the area!

  • If you hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike you.

  • When you hear thunder, immediately move to safe shelter: a substantial building with electricity or plumbing or an enclosed, metal-topped vehicle with windows up.

  • Stay in safe shelter at least 30 minutes after you hear the last sound of thunder.

  • Stay off corded phones, computers and other electrical equipment that put you in direct contact with electricity.

  • Avoid plumbing, including sinks, baths and faucets.

  • Stay away from windows and doors, and stay off porches.

  • Do not lie on concrete floors, and do not lean against concrete walls.

If you are caught outside with no safe shelter anywhere nearby, the following actions may reduce your risk:

  • Immediately get off elevated areas such as hills, mountain ridges or peaks.

  • Never lie flat on the ground.

  • Never shelter under an isolated tree.

  • Never use a cliff or rocky overhang for shelter.

  • Immediately get out and away from ponds, lakes and other bodies of water.

  • Stay away from objects that conduct electricity (barbed wire fences, power lines, windmills, etc.).

FMI: You can read Mattingly’s article in Emergency Physicians Monthly on the publication’s website.