What if I were struck by lightning?


Initially this seems like a fairly straightforward question. As it turns out, there are several ways a person can be struck by lightning, and the type of strike dictates the impact it can have on your body.

  • Direct strike: A cloud-to-ground lightning strike hits you or something you’re holding, like a golf club, dead-on instead of reaching the ground.
  • Side flash: Lightning strikes something close to where you are standing and then jumps from that to you.
  • Contact potential: While you’re touching something, like a fence post or a tree, lighting strikes that object and the current travels from the object through the point of contact into your body.
  • Step voltage: You’re sitting with your feet together in front of you, knees up and rump settled on the ground near a spot where a cloud-to-ground lightning strike hits. As the lighting current disperses, it travels through your body by entering one point, say your joined feet, and exiting another, your rear end.
  • Surge voltage: While you’re using some type of electrical appliance or a telephone, lighting strikes the source of power or network connected to the device and you receive a shock.

The worst kind of lightning experience is a direct strike, as it can be more lethal (but less common) than the other types, says the National Weather Service. Being hit by a side flash or through contact potential are the next in the level of severity, with step voltage third and surge voltage last. Basically, the amount of current and voltage going through your body lessens with each of these types of strikes. If you’re a victim of a direct strike, the full impact of the lightning courses through your body. In the other scenarios, the intensity is lessened because some of the energy is dispersed elsewhere.

The circulatory, respiratory and nervous systems are most commonly affected when a person is struck by lightning:

  • Circulatory: Reportedly, the majority of fatalities resulting from direct strikes are due to cardiac arrest. Ironically, were someone nearby with an automatic external defibrillator, to administer another electric shock to the heart, the victim might survive.
  • Respiratory: The greatest threat to the respiratory system is paralysis. Artificial respiration is required so the victim won’t die from lack of oxygen.
  • Nervous: When the central nervous system is affected, a number of side effects can occur such as dementia, amnesia, temporary paralysis, impaired reflexes, memory gaps and anxiety or depression.

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