When a thunderstorm hits, a nice summer day spent outside enjoying nature can quickly turn dangerous.
The sky darkens as ominous clouds block out the sun. In the distance, lightning flashes, followed by rumbling thunder.
Sometimes these storms appear with little or no warning, stranding people who are caught far from shelter.
Anyone outside during a storm is at risk for becoming a victim of lightning strikes. But many people don't know fact from fiction when it comes to lightning strike safety.
Here's how to stay safe when lightning strikes and what to do if a storm hits.
Myth: Lighting strikes aren't very common.
Fact: there is a 1 in 12,000 chance that a person will be struck by lightning in his lifetime.
To put that number into perspective, consider this: The chances of a person being killed by a shark attack are one in 3.7 million, according to National Geographic.
Myth: You're protected from lightning strikes in cars because of the rubber tires.
Fact: The metal frame of the car is what protects you from lightning strikes.
As the National Weather Service explains, when lightning strikes a car, the impact travels through the metal frame and into the ground.
If you are near a vehicle when a storm strikes, get inside and make sure the windows are closed. Convertibles, motorcycles, and other open-air vehicles do not provide the protection that an enclosed car does.
Myth: If you are caught outside in a storm, always avoid seeking shelter under trees.
Fact: It's better to seek shelter in a forest than under a single, isolated tree.
In general, the US Forest Service (FS) recommends that you descend to the lowest ground you can find when a storm hits, especially if you are somewhere above the tree line. Many lightning strike injuries occur when people are higher up, such as when they are mountain hiking or climbing.
If you cannot seek shelter in a building or car when a storm hits, the FS says a forest may be your best option.
Myth: To avoid getting struck by lightning outside, stay low by lying on the ground.
Fact: The safest position is crouched with your feet together and your head hanging low.
Lying down or sitting increases the surface area of your body in contact with the ground. This gives lightning a larger path to follow should it strike nearby.
If you get caught outside with other people, try to spread out at least 15 feet apart from each other to decrease the risk of everyone getting hit, the FS explains.
Myth: Lightning strike injuries are mostly physical.
Fact: The majority of the damage from lightning strikes is neurological.
The National Weather Service (NWS) also explains that outward injuries like serious burns are rare compared to internal injuries.
People who are struck by lightning but do not suffer cardiac arrest may experience a number of symptoms over the next few days, including:
- Sore muscles
- Headaches, nausea, and concussion-like symptoms
- Mild confusion, memory difficulties, and mental fuzziness
- Dizziness and difficulty balancing
Neurological damage from lightning strikes can be long term. People who have been struck may experience:
- Difficulty processing new information and recalling old information
- Inability to multitask
- Slower reaction times
- Personality change
- Inattentiveness or forgetfulness
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Headaches that do not go away using over-the-counter pain medications
- Nerve injury pain
- Ringing in the ears
Myth: Once the heart of the storm passes, you're safe from lightning strikes.
Fact: Lightning can strike up to 15 miles away from a thunderstorm.
Many times, lightning strikes occur three or more miles from the center of the storm, the NWS explains.
The tail end of a storm can cause lightning strikes as well, according to the Forest Service. Be very cautious when heading back outside. Make sure the storm has completely passed.
Myth: You shouldn't touch someone who has been struck by lightning because they might electrocute you.
Fact: You can - and should - provide first aid to lightning strike victims.
Not only are people who have been struck by lightning not electrified — meaning they cannot electrocute you — they often also need immediate first aid, says the NWS.
If someone near you has been struck by lightning, call 911 right away and begin CPR if you know the technique, the FS recommends.
The physicians at West Valley Medical Center can help treat victims of lightning strikes.