Lightning strikes have massive electrical charges averaging 30 million volts, with a temperature hotter than the surface of our sun. Thunder is the sound of the resulting shock wave generated from the rapid expansion of supercharged air surrounding the path of the lightning bolt.
Lightning strikes can be deadly, and the best treatment for lightning strikes is prevention. Awareness of high-risk land features, situations, and safest locations can minimize your chance of getting injured from a lightning strike.
Symptoms and Description
Luckily, lightning strikes happen extremely quickly, and the short amount of time the current is applied to the body helps limit the amount of injury. There are several ways lightning can hurt you. Lightning can:
- Strike directly
- Harm through a concussive blast from exploding air
- Cause injury through side splash (where the lightning jumps from a nearby object)
- Cause injury through ground current (where the ground conducts the electrical charge to you)
The electrical energy from lighting can travel through all the body’s tissues, affecting different organs. These injuries can include fatal heart rhythms and loss of heartbeat, seizures, paralysis of the breathing center, bleeding in the brain, amnesia, temporary paralysis, skin burns, dislocations or fractures, cold pulseless extremities, muscle aches, and deafness.
Lightning victims do not retain an electrical charge, and touching them is not hazardous to a rescuer.
The victim of a lightning strike may have no breathing, no pulse, and may appear dead. However, the rescuer should immediately perform CPR because the massive amount of energy from a lightning strike may short circuit the breathing center of the brain and the normal beating rhythm of the heart.
While the heart can usually restart and spontaneously regain a healthy rhythm, the lungs do not have this same ability. Unfortunately, the lack of oxygen from no breathing will eventually cause the heart to stop beating and the victim will die unless oxygen can be delivered through CPR. CPR with rescue breaths will allow oxygen to feed the brain until the breathing center of the brain restarts the paralyzed respiratory drive.
Frequent pulse checks during CPR may reveal a heartbeat that has regained a healthy rhythm; however, the lightning victim may need continued assistance with rescue breaths for five or ten minutes until the stunned respiratory center of the brain gets back on-line.
- Don’t be afraid to touch the victim of a lightning strike. They do not retain any electrical charge.
- If the victim doesn’t appear to be breathing or doesn’t have a pule. Perform CPR immediately.
- Frequently check for a pulse during CPR. Even if a heartbeat returns, the victim may need continued assistance with rescue breaths for five or ten minutes.
- Evacuate to a hospital.
- Burns to the skin
- Abdominal or chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Amnesia, paralysis, confusion, or altered level or responsiveness
- Pain in an extremity
- Cardiopulmonary arrest
Defining Your Risk Category
Situational awareness is your first defense to avoid a lightning strike. Be aware of weather patterns and exposed areas to minimize risk.
Storm clouds and hot weather conditions all increase the risk of lightning. Weather is usually hotter in the afternoons.
Lightning can travel horizontally up to 10 miles, which means that there is still a risk of lightning well before a storm arrives or rain begins.
Remember the 30-30 rule of lightning. If you see lightning, count seconds, and if you hear thunder before 30 seconds is up, you should seek shelter. Wait at least 30 minutes after the last thunderclap or lightning strike before resuming activities.
If you see lightning or hear thunder, you do not want to be the tallest object in an area, but you also do not want to be near the tallest object. Avoid standing near an isolated tall tree or on a ridgeline or hilltop. Avoid metal structures or objects and get out of the water.
If you are in a group, try to spread out at least 20 feet apart (while still keeping in sight). This can reduce the risk of a single lightning strike hitting multiple victims at once.
- Metal vehicle with closable doors
- Cave that is deeper than it is tall
- Deep ravine
- Forest with thick tree growth
- Darkening skies
- Increasing winds
- Increasing big clouds
- Hot weather
- Visible lightning or sound of thunder
- Open vehicle like a golf cart or convertible
- Tent or lean to
- Shallow cave that is taller than deep
- Exposed ridgelines or peaks
- Open fields
- Swimming or standing in water
- Isolated tall trees
Guidelines for Safe Travel if Thunder and Lightning
- If you can hear thunder, there is an increased risk of lightning. Avoid high risk features and immediately seek shelter.
- Avoid or leave high risk areas such as: ridgelines, summits, water, or isolated tall trees or small structures like sheds.
- Try to avoid peaks and ridgelines in the afternoons, as thunderstorms are more frequent during this time period.
- For shelter, seek out a dense forest, a deep ravine, or a cave that is deeper than it is tall.
- If in a group, spread out more than 20 feet between individuals while maintaining visual contact.
- Wait a minimum of 30 minutes after last thunder or lightning before resuming outdoor activity.
Prevention if caught out in thunder and lightning
- If thunder and lighting, leave high risk features and seek a safe area.
- Crouch on insulative materials like sleeping pad or backpack if available. Put on rain gear, take off metal objects.
- Crouch down with hands over your ears.
Have you or a companion been struck by lightning?
If yes, launch medical assessment below.
Emergency Red Flags
Keep an eye out for the following symptoms. These red flags may be cause for evacuation.
- Anyone with a burn or new injury following a lightning strike
If yes, launch medical assessment below.
Are you concerned about a lightning strike?
Download GOES to launch a digital medical assessment or speak with a wilderness medicine physician.