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Lightning Strike

Lightning Strike Facts

Patient Comments
  • Lightning is consistently among the top five weather-related killers.
  • In typical years past, lightning killed more people in the United States than any other natural disaster (with the exception of flash floods), including tornadoes.
  • Most people killed or injured by lightning are outside doing recreational activities such as fishing, boating, swimming, or playing sports.
  • Others are working outdoors at construction jobs. Farmers are often struck, too.

What are the different kinds of lightning strikes?

Injury from a lightning strike may occur in any of these ways:

  • Direct strike: Lightning directly strikes a person.
  • Contact strike: A person is touching an object (such as a tree or pole) that has been struck by lightning.
  • Side splash: Lightning jumps from the primary strike object on its way to the ground.
  • Ground strike: Lightning strikes the ground and the current spreads out in a circle from that spot.
  • Blunt injury: A person is thrown violently from the lightning strike or from the explosive force that occurs as surrounding air is superheated and rapidly cooled.
  • Upward streamer: When a low-energy electrical charge streams upward to meet a downward leader, it may carry enough current to cause electrical injury even if it does not connect with the downward current to complete the lightning strike.

What are the symptoms of a lightning strike?

A person struck by lightning may have immediate cardiac arrest. In others, you may see no outward signs of injury. Some people may lose consciousness for varying periods. They may seem confused and not remember what happened. Lightning may even flash over the outside of a person, blow off their clothes, and leave few obvious signs of injury.

Lightning may cause numerous other injuries:

  • Heart damage or cardiac arrest may occur.
  • Up to two-thirds of the seriously injured people struck by lightning have keraunoparalysis - a temporary paralysis unique to lightning strike.
  • Victims may experience superficial burns. Contrary to common belief, deep burns are rare. They occur in few lightning injuries.
  • Various types of broken bones and dislocations may be caused by lightning.
  • Skull fractures and cervical spine (neck) injuries may result from associated blunt trauma.
  • Lungs may be damaged, causing shortness of breath.
  • Eye injury may cause immediate visual problems or delayed cataract formation.
  • The eardrum is commonly ruptured. This causes pain, hearing loss, and dizziness.

When to Seek Medical Care After a Lightning Strike

Call 911 emergency services to transport a person for any of these reasons:

  • Any period of unconsciousness
  • Paralysis
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Back or neck pain
  • Obvious deformity of an extremity such as an arm or leg indicating a possible broken bone
  • Any noticeable burns

How is a lightning strike diagnosed?

The doctor may order some tests depending on the history of the strike and the findings of the physical examination. Some of the tests that might be ordered include the following:

  • ECG (electrocardiogram) to check the heart
  • Heart monitor to watch for arrhythmias (rhythm disturbances of the heart)
  • CT scan of the brain or abdomen
  • X-rays
  • Laboratory tests such as blood count and chemistries including enzymes that may indicate heart damage
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/16/2016
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Patient Comments & Reviews

The eMedicineHealth doctors ask about Lightning Strike:

Ligntning Strike - Patient Experience

Have you been struck by lightning? Please describe your experience.

Electrical Injuries

Electrical injury happens when the body conducts electric current, usually from a bolt of lightning or a man-made electrical source. Electrical injuries may consist of burn wounds or significant internal injuries. A powerful shock can cause cardiac arrest and death.

Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Lightning Injuries »

Over the last century, records for environmental injuries and mortality indicate that lightning has consistently been one of the top 3 environment-related causes of death and the second most common storm-related cause of death, exceeded only by flash floods.

Read More on Medscape Reference »

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