The effects of a lightning strike on the human body are often debilitating, if not fatal. Here's why.
Most of us have seen lighting dance through the sky, counting the seconds that pass before we hear thunder in order to see how close we are to that deadly charge. While thousands of people are struck by lightning each year, only a fraction are fatally injured. Yet for these survivors, the effects of a lightning strike are debilitating and last for decades. Here’s why:
A lightning strike is a massive electrical discharge between the atmosphere and an earth-bound object. A lightning bolt can heat the surrounding air to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit—that’s five times hotter than the sun—and can contain up to 300kV of energy. This brief video explains how lightning forms:
How Can We Survive A Lightning Strike?
When you think about all the power, heat and electricity that comprise a lightning bolt, it is hard to imagine anyone surviving a strike. Yet most people do survive, in part because lightning rarely passes through the body.
Instead, a “flashover” occurs, meaning that the lightning zips over the body, traveling via ultra-conductive sweat (and often rainwater), which provides an external voltage pathway around the body. When people do die from a lightning strike, it is usually due to an electrical discharge-induced heart attack.
The Effects Of A Lightning Strike On The Body
A body hit by lightning will show various signs of trauma. Like a gunshot, a lightning strike causes both an exit and entrance wound, marking where the current both entered and left the victim. Lichtenberg scarring, which outlines ruptured blood vessels, frequently covers the body in odd, almost beautiful, spiderweb patterns (as seen in the images below).
High levels of electricity turn sweat and rainwater into scalding steam, and transform any metallic objects—like keys and jewelry—into fiery, white-hot substances that leave serious burns. Clothing can be shredded or lit on fire by both the explosive force of air and the lightning bolt’s high heat levels. Often shoes and socks are thrown off of the lightning strike victim.
The Effects of a Lightning Strike on the Brain
Surprisingly enough, many lightning strike survivors do not remember being struck. Instead, the only evidence of the traumatic event is burnt, displaced clothing and marks along the body. One of the most intense effects of a lightning strike occurs within the brain: if the bolt’s electrical current enters the brain directly, the heat and electricity will cook the brain cells, rendering them useless. Yet for many people, these bolts’ effects on the brain appear more subtly over time.
For instance, many lightning strike survivors report memory issues, trouble with concentration and severe headaches, all of which last decades after the initial strike.
Due to the rarity of lightning strike cases, less time and resources have been devoted to better understanding how these strikes impact long-term brain function. An unpublished study by medical doctor Mary Ann Cooper found that there were “significant differences in brain activity between lightning-strike victims and healthy people as they performed mental-aptitude tests.”
Aside from impacting long-term brain function, lightning strikes are also known to blow out eardrums, prompting constant muscle twitches and moderate to severe nerve damage. Overall, the effects of a lightning strike may range from a slight inconvenience to a debilitating, lifelong struggle.