What Lightning Does to Your Body

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What Lightning Does to Your Body

Lightning over a tent
Lightning displays a combination of power and heat that can cause serious damage if it strikes you. Credit: John White Photos/Moment Open/Getty Images

What Lightning Does to Your Body

Lightning strikes are wondrous sites to see, but they can also be deadly. With a power of 300 kilovolts, lightning can heat the air up to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This combination of power and heat can cause serious damage to the human body. Being struck by lightning may lead to a wide range of injuries including burns, rupturing of the eardrum, eye damage, cardiac arrest, and respiratory arrest. While about 10 percent of lighting strike victims are killed, many of the 90 percent that survive have to deal with lasting complications that result from having been struck.

5 Ways Lightning Can Strike You

Lightning is a result of the build up of electrostatic charge in clouds. The top of the cloud typically becomes positively charged and the bottom of the cloud becomes negatively charged. As the separation of charges increases, the negative charges may jump toward the positive charges in the cloud or toward positive ions in the ground. When this happens, a lightning strike occurs. There are typically five ways in which lightning may strike a person. Any type of lightning strike should be taken seriously and medical attention should be sought if a person is thought to have been struck by lightning.

  1. Direct Strike

    Of the five ways in which lightning can strike individuals, a direct strike is the least common. In a direct strike, the lightning current moves directly through the body. This type of strike is the most deadly because part of the current moves over the skin, while other portions typically move through the cardiovascular system and nervous system. The heat generated by the lightning causes burns on the skin and the current can damage vital organs such as the heart and brain.
     
  2. Side Flash

    This type of strike occurs when lightning contacts a nearby object and part of the current jumps from the object to a person. The person is typically in close proximity to the object that has been struck, about one to two feet away. This type of strike often occurs when a person is seeking shelter under tall objects, such as a tree.
     
  3. Ground Current

    This type of strike occurs when lightning strikes an object, like a tree, and part of the current travels along the ground and strikes a person. Ground current strikes cause the most lightning strike related deaths and injuries. As the current comes in contact with a person, it enters the body at a point closest to the current and exits at a contact point furtherest away from the lightning. As the current travels through the body, it can cause extensive damage to the body's cardiovascular and nervous systems. Ground current may travel through any type of conductive material, including garage floors.
     
  4. Conduction

    Conduction lightning strikes occur when lightning travels through conductive objects, like metal wires or plumbing, to strike a person. Although metal does not attract lightning, it is a good conductor of electrical current. Most indoor lightning strikes occur as a result of conduction. People should stay away from conductive objects, such as windows, doors, and objects connected to electrical outlets during storms.
     
  5. Streamers

    Before a lightning current forms, the negatively charged particles at the bottom of a cloud are attracted to the positively charged ground and positive streamers in particular. Positive streamers are positive ions that extend upward from the ground. The negatively charged ions, also called step leaders, create an electric field as they move toward the ground. When the positive streamers extend toward the negative ions and make contact with a step leader, lightning strikes. Once a lightning strike has occurred, other streamers in the area discharge. Streamers can extend from things such as the ground surface, a tree, or a person. If a person is involved as one of the streamers that discharge after a lightning strike has occurred, that individual could be seriously injured or killed. Streamer strikes are not as common as the other types of strikes.

Consequences of Being Struck By Lightning

The consequences resulting from a lightning strike vary and depend on the type of strike and the amount of current traveling through the body.

  • Lightning can cause burns to the skin, deep wounds, and tissue damage. The electrical current can also cause a type of scaring known as Lichtenberg figures (branching electric discharges). This type of scaring is characterized by unusual fractal patterns that develop as a result of blood vessel destruction that happens as the lightning current travels through the body.
     
  • Cardiac arrest can occur as a lightning strike can cause the heart to stop. It may also cause arrhythmias and pulmonary edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs).
     
  • Lightning strikes may cause a number of neurological conditions and brain damage. A person may slip into a coma; experience pain and numbness or weakness in limbs; suffer from spinal cord injuries; and develop sleep and memory disorders.
     
  • A lightning strike may cause damage to the ear and hearing loss. It may also cause vertigo, corneal damage, and blindness.
     
  • The shear force of being hit by a lightning strike can cause clothing and shoes to be blown off, singed, or shredded. This type of trauma can also cause internal bleeding and can sometimes result in broken bones.

The proper response to lightning and storms is to seek shelter quickly. Stay away from doors, windows, electrical equipment, sinks, and faucets. If you get caught outside, do not seek shelter under a tree or rocky overhang. Stay away from wires or objects that conduct electricity and keep moving until you find safe shelter.

Sources:

  • Lightning Safety. National Weather Service. Accessed 04/29/2015. (http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/).