If Lightning Roars, Go Indoors
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If Lightning Roars, Go Indoors

The National Weather Service's slogan and Texas Tech Physician John Griswold, M.D., remind people to be cautious during summer storms.

Written by Suzanna Cisneros

Many cloud-to-ground lightning flashes have forked or multiple attachment points to earth.

Many cloud-to-ground lightning flashes have forked or multiple attachment points to earth.

Summer is the peak season in the U.S. for lightning, with strikes killing an average of 51 people per year, according to the National Weather Service.

In fact, just last month one person was killed and 13 were injured in a lightning storm at California’s famous Venice Beach.

John Griswold, M.D., Texas Tech Physicians – Surgery, sat down with us to explain the effects of lightning on the body and what can be done to prevent such accidents.

Q: What happens to a person that is struck by lightning?

A: There are two things that happen when a lightning strike is a direct hit to a person, but first we must understand that this is incredibly high electrical energy in the range of 10,000 to 100,000 volts (compared to the strongest high tension power lines that are at most 7,000 to 8,000 volts and household outlets are 110 volts).

Those two things are:

  • The electricity cooks the body’s tissue to extremely high temperatures.
  • The electricity, as it passes through the body, drills tiny holes in the cells, tissues and organs it traverses – called electroporation.

The only good news about lightning strikes is that the energy is only in contact with the body for a microsecond, and that allows some people to survive.

Q: How are injuries treated?

A: If the person suffers severe injury, the main thing that happens is that their heart stops and they quit breathing.

So, the main treatment usually is CPR. If they respond, then we monitor them in the burn intensive care unit for the tissue injuries.

Unfortunately, most people do not survive or cannot be revived from a direct lightning strike.

Q: What can a person do to avoid injuries?

A: To avoid injury when lightning and/or thunder are in the area, one must take shelter and not under tree, but in an enclosure completely protected.

What we mostly see, if the person survives lightning strikes, are not direct strikes, but what is called “side flashes” where something next to the person (like a tree) gets struck, electrifying the area and causing a weaker electrical injury, or more commonly, heating the surrounding ground and air to very high temperatures and causing third-degree burns.

Q: Anything as a physician you want to warn people about lightning strikes?

A: From a physician’s point of view, if you are with someone who does get hit by lightning, the best thing to do is check to see if they have a pulse, and if they don’t have one, start CPR immediately and call 911.

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Story produced by the Office of Communications and Marketing, (806) 743-2143.


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Featured Expert
John Griswold

John Griswold, M.D., is a professor and chairman of the Department of Surgery and holds clinic at Texas Tech Physicians.

View his profile in our Experts Guide.

School of Medicine
School of Medicine

Since 1969, the School of Medicine has graduated more than 3,000 physicians. The school aims to provide quality lab space, recruit creative, innovative research faculty, and develop graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for lifelong careers in medical research.

Today, more than 20 percent of the practicing physicians in West Texas have graduated from the School of Medicine or its residency programs.