House Call: Lightning injuries can strike in a flash
A few weeks ago we had a spectacular lightning storm. We have several each summer, and there are some that really stand out as impressive.
It is important to remember, however, that lightning is dangerous. This is Lightning Safety Awareness Week, and a good time to review ways you can stay safe during a storm.
Getting directly hit by lightning is responsible for only 3 to 5 percent of lightning injuries. You are more likely to be injured by what is called a side splash of electricity from another object near you that is hit directly, by ground current when you are near where lightning hits the ground or by an upward leader (lightning that develops from the earth). You can also be hurt by touching something that is struck and by being thrown by the explosive force of lightning. If someone does die from lightning, it is usually because the victim’s heart stops.
Only about 10 percent of people die from being directly or indirectly hit by lightning. But as many as 74 percent of survivors may have permanent injury. Lightning can cause internal bleeding in the brain, seizure, respiratory arrest (you stop breathing), nervous system damage, broken bones, muscle damage and hearing damage.
Lightning injuries can result in muscle soreness, bone pain, headache, temporary hearing loss, cold extremities, paralysis, nausea, vomiting, confusion, dizziness and problems with memory and balance.
While some symptoms can clear up within a few days, survivors of lightning injuries may experience problems for a long time that can be similar to a head injury, including:
• Difficulty with memory and multitasking.
• Slowed reaction time.
• Irritability and personality change.
• Chronic pain.
• Ringing in the ears.
• Dizziness or balance problems.
• Problems sleeping.
Treatment for injuries from lightning is similar to treatment for those caused by a bad electrical shock or other trauma.
Because the long-term problems resulting from a lightning injury all have to do with damage to your nervous system, you may be told to rest, limit the strain to your brain wherever possible, and simply be patient as the nervous system slowly heals itself. It may be helpful to be in contact with other lightning survivors, and Lightning Strike & Electrical Shock Survivors International ( www.lightning- strike.org) can be a useful resource.
You can protect yourself from lightning by going indoors as soon as you hear thunder. A lightning strike can happen as far as 10 miles from the thunderstorm, so remember to get indoors well before the storm is overhead and wait 30 minutes after the thunder has passed before going outside again. The majority of lightning injuries happen as a storm is approaching or leaving.
While you are indoors, do not use corded phones or electrical equipment that is plugged into an outlet. Stay away from the plumbing in your house; do not wash your hands or do dishes and do not shower or bathe. Stay away from windows, doors and porches, and do not lie on concrete floors or lean against concrete walls.
If you absolutely cannot get indoors, your next best option is to be inside a car or other metal vehicle. If even that is not possible, crouch on the ground with your limbs close together. Stay away from trees, bleachers, fences, towers and any small or open structure; get out of water and away from wet areas; stay off high areas of land.
So even though the lightning can be exciting to watch, remember what the National Weather Service says, “When thunder roars, go indoors.”
Dr. Alisa Hideg is a family medicine physician at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center in Spokane. Her column appears every other Tuesday in the Today section.