One In A Million: When Lightning Strikes!
National Lightning Safety Awareness Week is upon us. Who knew, right?! It runs from June 24th through the 30th this year. This is a great time for us to chat about lightning safety and caring for someone who has been injured by lightning. The amount of information available is staggering and potentially overwhelming to all but the most die hard weather nerds (you know who you are and we love you). Let me hit a few of the highlights for the rest of us.
Just the Facts, Ma’am
In the United States lightning strikes about 25 MILLION times annually. About 50 people are killed by lightning each year and hundreds are injured, ranking it among the top weather killers. The odds of being struck by lightning in any given year are one in 1,171,000.
Anywhere there is a thunderstorm, there can be lightning. Whenever thunder is heard, a storm is close enough for a lightning strike. Though most lightning fatalities occur at the beginning of an approaching storm, a significant number occur after the storm has passed. Lightning often strikes more than three miles from the center of the storm. It can strike 10 – 15 miles from the storm, even if it’s not raining or there are no clouds overhead. Stay in a protected place until 30 minutes after the last boom.
The National Weather Service and National Lightning Safety Council take lightning education very seriously and have an endless supply of information on their websites to inform us and help us to educate others. Take a peek here:
Treating Lightning Injuries
The most important thing to know is that victims of lightning strikes do not remain charged. The human body does not store electricity. It is perfectly safe to touch them and provide care, after making sure the scene is safe for you to enter. Ninety percent of people who are struck by lightning survive. Of those who don’t, cardiac arrest is the immediate cause of death.
Lightning is primarily an injury to our brain and nerves. There is no one specific injury caused by lightning, though some injuries are more common. The most serious consequence is cardiac or respiratory arrest. If we are close enough, the shock wave can rupture eardrums, break bones and damage internal organs. Traumatic brain injuries, loss of consciousness, blunt trauma and broken bones can happen from falling to the ground. Less serious symptoms such as muscle soreness, headaches, nausea, mild confusion, memory issues, mental clouding, dizziness, balance problems, weakness, numbness and tingling can occur. These issues usually clear over a few days.
The key to treating lightning injuries is to treat what you see. If the lightning injury causes cardiac arrest, perform CPR, even if they appear dead. Lightning acts as a defibrillator. The heart is a bit automatic and may restart on its own. Keep oxygenated blood flowing to your patient’s heart and brain by performing high quality CPR for 30 minutes if you are able to do so without exhausting or injuring yourself. Use an AED (Automatic External Defibrillator) if one is available.
There is no specific field treatment for traumatic brain injury other than providing basic life support, monitoring your patient and ideally evacuating them to a hospital. We should immobilize suspected broken bones with splints.
Burns from lightning injury are rarely serious. They are usually superficial and caused by vaporized sweat. Steam held to the body causes the burns. The immediate action is to open up the patient’s foul weather gear and allow the heat to escape, followed by cleansing and apply dressings to any noted burns.
As soon as the risks and benefits of your rescue plan allow, seek medical care for a patient with symptoms such as a loss of consciousness, paralysis, chest pain, shortness of breath, broken bones, serious burns, back or neck pain, ear or eye injuries.
Help for Lightning Survivors
Someone who has been struck by lightning may have longer term or delayed symptoms such as personality changes, depression, irritability, memory issues, difficulty multitasking, dizziness, ringing in the ears or chronic pain. There is help and hope. The Lightning Strike & Electric Shock Survivors International, Inc. (LS&ESSI, Inc), is a support group formed in 1989 by a lightning survivor. LS&ESSI has helped hundreds of survivors, families, physicians and other professionals by providing printed materials, supporting family and friends of survivors, and connecting survivors with others in their area. Contact them here:
Address: P.O. Box 1156, Jacksonville, NC 28541-1156
Preventing Lightning Strikes is Key
There is little we can do to reduce our risk of being struck while we’re out outside, especially out on the open water. Almost all lightning fatalities occur outside. The safest option is to get inside an enclosed space, with a hard topped roof, like the cabin of a larger boat. When thunder roars, go indoors! Close the portholes and hatches. Stay away from plumbing, metal and electrical appliances. Stay off the radio unless it’s an emergency. Put your life jacket on. It’s rare, but lightning can blow out through a hull or just plain blow a hole in the boat.
When thunder roars, go indoors!
The dominant factors determining where a lighting bolt will strike are height, pointy shape and isolation. Water and metal do not attract lightning, but they are excellent conductors of electricity. Stay out of the water and don’t hold on to wet lines. Avoid having the whole crew in the cockpit at the same time. Lower is safer. Stay away from your mast, shrouds and stays. If it’s an option, set a course to get out of the storm as quickly as possible.
The vast majority of lightning injuries and deaths on the water occur on small boats with no cabins. If thunderstorms are forecast, do not go out. If you are out and can’t get back to land and safety, the National Weather Service tells us to drop anchor and get as low as possible.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this and learned a little something to boot. Feel free to leave any comments or questions you have below. Have you ever had to treat someone with a lightning injury? I’d really like to hear how you handled it. Thanks again for reading. I look forward to sharing more useful info with you soon as we learn how to keep each other safe on the water. Stay tuned…