Ten shocking things that can happen if you are struck by lightning

May 8, 2013

Lightning bolts flash across the sky in Washington, D.C.  This image shows several lightning exposures taken during a thunderstorm in September of 2011. (Kevin Ambrose)

Do you remember those horrible driver’s education videos from high school that would depict the aftermath of car accidents with lots of blood, mangled cars, and bad actors?  Those videos were meant to scare us into following safe driving practices so we wouldn’t end up looking like the victims in the videos.

Well, this post won’t be as bad as those videos, but it will describe what can happen if you’re struck by lightning.  Hopefully, it will scare a few of you into following lightning safety practices a little more closely during future thunderstorms.

Let’s start with the lightning bolt.  It can pack up to 300kV of energy and can heat the surrounding air to 50,000 degrees F, which is five times hotter than the surface of the sun. Try to imagine something that powerful and hot striking your body.

Well, I’ll admit, it’s kind of hard to comprehend encountering lightning.  We just don’t see or handle 50,000 degree objects in our everyday life.  So, let me describe what can happen if you do have the misfortune of a 50,000 degree burst of energy slamming into your body.  Here’s a list of ten possible outcomes:

1) 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.

2) 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.

3) The force of lightning exiting a person’s foot can easily blow off shoes.

4) The electric discharge of a lightning strike can instantly stop the heart and cause cardiac arrest.  This happened to a concert-goer at RFK during the 1998 Tibetan Freedom Concert.

5) Brain damage and comas can occur if the electric current enters the skull.  The associated heat from the electric current literally cooks brain cells.


A lightning bolt strikes near the Washington Monument. (Kevin Ambrose)

6) Nerves can be damaged or destroyed by the lightning’s electric discharge which can then lead to permanent paralysis or numbness in limbs.

7) Ruptured ear drums are very common with lightning strike victims.

8) 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.

9) Some victims are left with constant muscle twitches and Parkinson’s Disease type symptoms.

10) 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.

Lightning strikes the Washington Monument, July 1, 2005. (Kevin Ambrose)
Lightning strikes the Washington Monument, July 1, 2005. (Kevin Ambrose)

OK, most of us know the basics of lightning safety.  If you see lightning or hear thunder, take cover inside of a building with walls and a roof, or inside of a car or vehicle.  As the National Weather Service states, “When thunder roars, go indoors.”  Stay indoors for 30 to 45 minutes after thunder subsides.

Many of us, however, tend to get a little careless with lightning safety.  I am guilty.  Most of my lightning photos were taken from inside a building or car, but I sometimes step outside too soon after the thunder subsides.  I also see this happen with people at the ball field, pool, golf course, or with their walks to and from cars and buildings during thunderstorms.

Hopefully, an education of the potential consequences of a lightning strike can motivate us to follow lightning safety practices a little more closely.

Much like how the drivers education videos scared us into safe driving, imagine that lightning bolt up close and personal.  No thanks!  I’ll be a little more careful.  I hope you will be more careful too.

Do you have any stories about lightning or information about lightning safety that you would like to share?  Let us know.

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Dan Stillman · May 8, 2013