When lightning strikes

Lightning storm over Arizona desert

Here in Arizona, we are in the thick of monsoon season. In fact, last week, we had what was described as a 25-year rain event in Phoenix.

During one recent storm, I looked outside to see wind and dust and furniture blowing around my backyard. I thought our swing might end up in the neighbor’s living room, so I grabbed some sunglasses to try to keep the dust out of my eyes and planned to move the swing to a safer spot on the patio. But, as I reached for the metal frame, lightning flashed above my head.

Better to leave the swing than risk getting struck by lightning while holding onto metal, I thought, and went inside. But I kept wondering—what exactly happens when a person gets hit by lightning?

Lightning strikes and people

According to Frank LoVecchio, DO, a toxicologist at the Banner Poison and Drug Information Center, when lightning strikes, it is at a temperature hotter than the surface of the sun, but has contact with you less than a fraction of a second.

“Most commonly, a localized burn occurs,” Dr. LoVecchio said. “The current or electrical activity can cause cardiac arrest or an irregular heartbeat, delivering energy to the heart similar to the way a defibrillator does.”

A lightning strike may also burst an ear drum, causing long-term hearing problems, or cause cataracts in the eyes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the odds of being struck by lightning in any given year are roughly 1 in 500,000, and about 10 percent of people struck by lightning die. A majority of the fatalities are caused by a heart attack.

Girl looking out the window on rainy day

Staying safe

As with most environmental illnesses or injuries, prevention is key. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends people follow the 30/30 rule: If, after seeing lightning, you can’t count to 30 before hearing thunder, get inside a building immediately. Also, don’t go outside until 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder.

The CDC offers these additional tips:

  • Stay indoors
    • While indoors, avoid water contact, use of electronic equipment and corded phones
    • Stay away from windows, doors, porches and concrete
  • If you are unable to go indoors, crouch close to the ground and separate
    • Crouching in a ball-like position with your head tucked and hands over your ears allows you to be low while touching the ground as little as possible
    • Separating from others in your group will reduce the number of injuries if lightning strikes the ground
  • A hard-top vehicle with the windows rolled-up can be a safe shelter
    • Convertibles, motorcycles and golf carts are NOT safe
  • Avoid open vehicles and open structures such as porches, gazebos, sports arenas, parks, pools and beaches
  • Avoid standing on concrete flooring or leaning on concrete walls as lightning can travel through metal wires or bars within the concrete
  • If you see someone struck by lightning, call 911 for help immediately
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