Effects of Lightning on Human Beings

Given its nature, lightning is probably one of nature’s more vicious tendencies and most painful to experience. Unlike other natural disasters where pain results from the various traumas caused and so can be escaped if you are lucky, the effects of lightning are direct to the person and there is no avoiding them.

The effects of lightning are more commonly seen in men as they are more likely to be struck by lightning with the statistics standing at four times more. With only 20% of the victims succumbing to immediate death, the majority are left alive for them to endure the resultant pain that in half cases will eventually kill them as unfortunately how to deal with lightning is only mastered by few specialists around the world.

Majority of the doctors know how to deal with a person suffering from electrical shock but unlike the average major electrical shock delivering 20 to 63 kilovolts, lightning gives off far more with up to 300 kilovolts though it lasts a shorter time.

The most badly affected are those who receive a direct hit. But those receiving a secondary hit as in form of residual charges coming off other objects that have been hit also are at risk. Here are the likely injuries to be suffered after a lightning strike.

  • For those who die immediately upon the strike, death is usually caused by inhibition of brain-stem respiratory receptors, multi system failure, and or ventricular fibrillation.
  • Whether directly from the lightning or as result of the fall from the strike, some may experience fractures and lesions as well as muscle and ligament tears in case of an explosion. Fracture to the cervical spine and skull are rare but may occur, while internal hemorrhage of the lungs, intestines, liver and brain have also been known to happen.
  • All victims of a strike will get some sort of ear and or eye injury that may develop immediately or even years later after the incident. Most likely it will be corneal damage but cataracts are also common and usually develop a few years after the strike. Retinal bleeding and detachment, optic nerve degeneration are other injuries that the eyes may suffer. For the ears, majority victims will usually have ruptured ear drums and transient deafness, vertigo and tinnitus. Some 47% of victims have claimed to have ear infections related to the strike injuries.
  • Given its electrical nature, burns are possible but are usually first or second degree burns, though in some cases third degree burns will occur if the victim was wearing any jewelry at the point of contact. The burns are usually small and deep at the point of entry and exit, reddish or brownish lesions may occur on the skin but disappear after a few days, or superficial flash burns may occur on the skin of the shoulders, neck and arms.
  • Cardiovascular and respiratory injuries are the most common to be incurred in a lightning strike. It is also the commonest cause of death as a result of a strike. From changes in pressure of the arteries, myocardial damage, cardiac dysfunction, heart stoppage to pulmonary edema, the injuries are fatal if not addressed immediately. Those present should ensure that the person is still breathing and if not should give CPR until professional help arrives.
  • Then there are neurological injuries affecting the peripheral and central nervous system as well as psychiatric ones that may develop immediately or years later. Neurological injuries include EKG abnormalities, seizures, loss of consciousness, temporary paralysis, neuropathy, brain damage, spinal cord injury, sleep and memory disorders. For psychological injuries, we have depression, post traumatic stress disorder, irritability, amnesia, anxiety, and confusion.

First aid for lightning victims
First thing to do is check for a pulse, and if you find none, administer CPR immediately to get the person breathing and kick start the heart. Do this until help arrives, the person is not still electrically charged so it is okay to touch them. Due to possible spinal injuries, do not attempt to move the person and cover them up in to prevent infection. Avoid being outside in a storm and if you are stay as far away as possible from tall, lone objects such as trees and poles as they are more likely to get struck and will give off a secondary strike that will affect you.

Majority of deaths resulting from lightning are as a result of cardiopulmonary arrest where the heart is unable to start again or the respiratory system crashes and the person dies from lack of oxygen. It is therefore very important that the person be given CPR immediately and do not be afraid to touch them as they do not still carry the electrical charge.


  1. Science.nasa.gov (human voltage –when lightning meets man).
  2. Blount BW. Lightning Injuries. American Family Practice 1990;42:405-14.
  3. Holle, RL., Lopez, RE., and Howard, KW. Safety in the Presence of Lightning. Seminars in Neurology 1995;15:375-79.

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