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Surviving a Lightning Strike: Information and Health Effects

  • Published: 2013-10-28 (Rev. 2016-11-10) - Contact: Disabled World
  • Synopsis: Information including a list of possible after effects experienced following a lightning strike to the body.

Definition: Lightning Strike

Electrical discharges on a massive scale between the atmosphere and an earth-bound object. They mostly originate in thunderclouds and terminate on the ground, called Cloud to Ground (CG) lightning. However, upward propagating lightning may also be initiated from a very tall grounded object and reach into the clouds.

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"Anyone who is suspected of being injured by lightning should be evaluated in a hospital emergency department, even if they do not have obvious injuries."

Lightning strikes present weather-related medical emergencies. Lightning is consistently among the top 5 weather-related causes of death. In common years past, lightning has killed more people in America than any other type of natural disaster with the exception of flash floods, to include tornadoes - up to approximately 3,000 deaths each year. The number of deaths caused by lightning has decreased fortunately.

In the year 2011, lightning-related deaths were low and topped by tornadoes, floods, heat and rip currents. There are 4-5 times as many people injured from lightning as the number of deaths. The majority of people who have been injured or killed by lightning were outside pursuing recreational activities such as fishing, swimming, boating, or playing sports. Other people were working outside at construction jobs, or performing farming work. An injury from a lightning strike can happen in a number of ways:

  • Direct Strike - When lightning strikes a person directly
  • Contact Strike - When an object a person is touching has been struck by lightning
  • Side Splash - When lightning jumps from the primary strike object on its way to the ground
  • Ground Strike - When lightning strikes the ground and the current spreads out in a circle from the spot
  • Blunt Injury - When a person is thrown from the lightning strike or explosive force that happens as surrounding air is superheated and rapidly cooled

A person may also be injured in what is known as an, 'Upward Streamer.' An upward streamer is when a low-energy electrical charge streams upward to meet a downward leader. It might carry enough current to cause electrical injury, even if it does not connect with the downward current to complete the lightning strike.

Symptoms of a Lightning Strike

Chart showing potential lightning strike injuries
Chart showing potential lightning strike injuries
A person who has been struck by lightning may experience an immediate cardiac arrest. Some people who have been struck by lightning may present no outward signs of an injury. Others might lose consciousness for different periods of time and may seem confused and unable to remember what has happened. Lightning might even flash over the outside of someone, blow off their clothing and leave few clear signs of injury. Lightning has the potential to cause a number of injuries to include:
  • Eye injury
  • Lung damage
  • Heart damage
  • Superficial burns
  • Eardrum rupture
  • Broken bones and dislocations
  • Skull fractures and cervical spine injuries
  • Keraunoparalysis - a temporary paralysis

It is important to call 911 emergency services to transport a person if they experience any period of unconsciousness, paralysis, and shortness of breath, chest pain, noticeable burns, back or neck pain, or any indication of a possible broken bone. Lightning strike is mainly an injury to a person's nervous system, many times with brain and nerve injury. Serious burns rarely happen due to a lightning strike. People who do not experience a cardiac arrest at the time of the incident might experience lesser symptoms which can clear over a few days. These symptoms include dizziness, balance issues, muscle soreness, mild confusion, memory slowness, mental clouding, nausea, headache, upset stomach, as well as additional post-concussion types of symptoms.

People who have experienced a lightning strike may also experience longer term issues. The majority of those who have survived a lightning strike experience only some of the symptoms below:

  • Headaches
  • Distractibility
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Slower reaction time
  • Issues with multitasking
  • Difficulties with sleeping
  • Dizziness or balance issues
  • Chronic pain from nerve injury
  • Inattentiveness or forgetfulness
  • Irritability and personality change
  • Issues with coding new information/accessing old information

Chart showing delayed lightning strike symptoms
Chart showing delayed lightning strike symptoms
People who have experienced a lightning strike may also experience symptoms that are delayed. These symptoms may include depression, chronic pain, headaches, personality changes, self-isolation, and difficulties with carrying on a conversation. The person may feel irritable or embarrassed because they are unable to remember others, their job responsibilities, or key information.

Family members, friends, and co-workers who see the same person they knew before might not understand why the person they know who has experienced a lightning strike is so different. Friends might stop coming by or asking them to participate in activities, or survivors may self-isolate due to irritability or embarrassment. It is important for family members, friends, and others to continue to participate with people who have experienced a lightning strike.

Lightning Strike and Medical Care

Begin CPR immediately on any person who is not breathing and does not have a pulse. Call 911 for emergency medical services. Instructions for performing CPR can be provided over the phone by a 911 dispatch center.

Anyone who is suspected of being injured by lightning should be evaluated in a hospital emergency department, even if they do not have obvious injuries. Generally, if a person does not have any symptoms and an average EEG they might be sent home with a referral to any specialists they require. A doctor will treat any injuries that are found during a physical examination.

A doctor might order some different tests depending on the history of the strike and the finding of a physical examination. Some of the tests a doctor may order include:

  • X-rays
  • Heart monitor
  • Electrocardiogram
  • CT scan of the abdomen or brain

A doctor might also order laboratory tests such as blood count and chemistries including enzymes which may indicate damage to the person's heart.

Recovering from a Lightning Strike

The most important factors where overcoming disability from lightning injury, or from any form of illness or major injury, include some different things. Having a supportive network of family members and friends is extremely important. Becoming your own advocate and learning as much as possible about this disability, or having a family member help you do this, is equally important. Finding a doctor who is willing to listen, read, learn and work with you and your family members and friends is as well. There is no specific treatment for injuries due to lightning strike. Care of the brain injury and chronic pain issues is similar to that for nerve injury and concussion from other causes. A sense of humor and laughter provide great stress relief.

Florida #1 in Lightning Deaths

Florida ranks number one in the country in lightning strikes per square mile. So, it should be no surprise that Florida leads in lightning deaths as well. But what's eye opening to John Jensenius, a lightning specialist with the National Weather Service, is that 82 percent of the lightning deaths are male. Also surprising is what they were doing when hit by lightning.

Colorado Lightning Resource Page

This internet site is intended to serve as a resource for lightning information for the state of Colorado. Knowing more about lightning, its causes, and some basic safety rules can help you and your family avoid needless exposure to the dangers of lightning.


  1. Wendy Taormina-Weiss (Jul 02, 2012). Wildfires - Before, During and After the Crisis
  2. Thomas C. Weiss (Jun 02, 2013). Tornadoes and People with Disabilities
  3. (Jan 13, 2012). Preventing Shocks from Static Electricity


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