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What Happens When You Get Struck by Lightning?

 

Direct Lightning Strike to a tree

The human body conducts electricity which means that we are made up of atoms that can accept and then pass along negatively charged particles. Electricity is what keeps our hearts beating and our brains functioning. But this also means that the human body is also a good conductor of electricity which can turn a person into a human lightning rod during a thunderstorm.

The overall impact of a lightning strike on the human body depends on the type of strike that occurs.  The 5 main types of lightning strikes are:

Direct Strike- occurs when cloud to ground lighting strikes you or something that you are holding directly, like a golf club, instead of striking the ground

Side Flash- occurs when lightning strikes the ground or an object close to you and the current jumps from that object to you

Contact Potential- occurs when you are holding or touching an object, like a tree, and lightning strikes that object and the current moves from that object through to the point of contact (like the hand you are touching the tree with)

Step Voltage- occurs when the electricity of a lightning strike enters and travels through one area of your body and leaves through a separate area. For example, lightning strikes the ground close to where you are sitting. The electricity enters your feet and exits through your hands.

Surge Voltage- occurs when a person is working on some type of electrical appliance, like a telephone pole, and lightning strikes the device and you receive a shock.

All types of lightning strikes can impact the human body. However, the most dangerous is a direct lightning strike because the full current of the strike will course through your body. In other scenarios, the effects of the lightning strike are lessened because some of the energy of the strike is dispersed through a different object, like a tree or the ground.

Lightning strike survivor displays Lichtenberg Figures on his back

When a direct strike of lightning hits a person, three main body systems are affected: the nervous system, respiratory system and the circulatory system. The majority of fatalities that result from direct strikes are due to cardiac arrest- which is when the heart stops beating. This is due to the level of voltage a lightning strike contains- upwards of 300kV.  Additionally, the respiratory system can become paralyzed which means your lungs will stop functioning and the strike victim cannot breath. Lightning bolt shaped marks, called Lichtenberg Figures, appear on the body after a lightning strike and are caused by bursting blood vessels. The effects on the nervous system can extend far beyond the initial strike and can include dementia, amnesia, impaired reflexes, memory gaps and anxiety or depression.  Brain damage is common for direct strike victims as the brain literally cooks from the heat generated by the lightning strike.

The impact of a lightning strike can be even worse for a person who is holding a metal object. Like the human body, metal is also a conductor of electricity and can be a magnet for lightning strikes.  A big reason why the state of Florida has the highest reported lightning related deaths and injuries each year (126 deaths in the last ten years) is not from the topography of the region but due to the state’s growing golf industry. Many golfers are unaware of the dangers of lightning and will continue to play golf even while a storm approaches.

Since lightning can strike even when the thunderstorm is miles away, the safest way to reduce the risk of being struck by lightning is to move indoors when a storm is approaching. For anyone that wishes to stay outside during a thunderstorm, lightning detectors or lightning detection service can be used to measure lightning strike distances to provide adequate time to get to safety.

 

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