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When lightning strikes

May 28, 2015

The thunderstorm season in New England has only just arrived, but already there have been five deaths across the country involving people being struck while under a tree, in a parking lot, on a horse, and while riding a motorcycle.

Deadly strikes

“Lightning can cause a victim’s heart to stop and seriously affect your internal organs,” said Dr. Joseph Schmidt, vice chair, Emergency Medicine, Baystate Medical Center.

Lightning from thunderstorms kills an average of 49 people each year in the United States, with hundreds more severely injured, according to the National Weather Service. It urges “when thunder roars, go indoors.” And, today, these thunderstorms appear to be more threatening than ever before, with dangerous cloud to ground lightning, high winds, hail and torrential rain.

Those who don’t die and survive a lightning strike often report a variety of symptoms, some long-term, including memory loss, dizziness, sleep disorders, numbness, irritability, fatigue, depression, muscle spasms, weakness, and stiffness in various joints.

Safety tips

The American College of Emergency Physicians and Dr. Schmidt offer the following safety guidelines whether caught outside during a thunderstorm or in the safety of your home:

  • Seek shelter when you hear a thunderstorm approaching (you are much safer indoors or inside an enclosed car), and don’t sit on the porch or stand in the doorway or at a window watching the “light” show.
  • Avoid tall, isolated structures, such as tall, single trees or flag poles; don’t hold a “lightning rod” such as a golf club, umbrella, or tent pole.
  • Stay away from open fields, open structures or vehicles, or contact with conductive material, such as computers, telephones, water pipes (including in and around sinks, baths and faucets), or fences.
  • Avoid being near, on, or in water.
  • Turn off, unplug, and stay away from electrical appliances, televisions, computers and power tools.
  • Do not use the telephone.

Dr. Schmidt noted that there has been some discussion in the media that iPods or similar devices during storms can attract lightning-strike injuries.

“The true concern is that when lightning strikes an iPod or other metal device, the metal conducts the electricity resulting in more serious harm caused by contact burns from these items,” he said.

The American College of Emergency Physicians also suggests following the “30-30 Rule” to seek shelter if you hear thunder within 30 seconds of the lightning flash. Then, wait at least 30 minutes after the last lighting flash or thunder to resume normal activity.

If you see a person struck by lightning, call 9-1-1 immediately and begin CPR if the victim is not breathing.