Science

What happens when you’re struck by lightning?

Lightning can be awe-inspiring and downright scary all at the same time. There’s a 1 in 1,222,000, or 0.0000008%, chance of getting hit by a lightning bolt in a year, so chances are you’ll never have to experience it. But for everyone who would still like to know, here’s what happens when you’re struck by lightning.

What causes lightning?

Distant view of thunderstorm cloud and lightning bolt ripping through sky
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Lightning is formed when hot and cold air meet in the sky. The cold air has ice crystals and the warm air has water droplets. As the warm air rises, it bumps into the colder air at the bottom of the clouds. These collisions create static electrical charges. Once the energy has built up, it’s released all at once as a bolt of lightning.

Properties of lightning

Sky view of dark and stormy thunderclouds illuminated by internal lightning flashes
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The properties of lightning are just as spectacular as the event itself. A single bolt can reach more than ten miles in length and scorch anything in its path with 50,000-degree Fahrenheit temperatures. That’s five times hotter than the surface of the Sun.

Lightning can also occur more often than just during thunderstorms. Anything that makes the surface air temperatures rise can cause lightning storms. Major forest fires, volcanic eruptions, heavy snowstorms, hurricanes, and even nuclear detonations all have the potential to create lightning.

Before getting struck

Lightning striking in multiple places on hilly landscape
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Of course, in order to be struck by lightning, it has to be in the area. Most, but not all, lightning comes from thunderstorms. People tend to think that the closer you are to the center of the storm, the higher your chances of getting struck. That’s not the case. Lightning bolts can reach out as far as ten miles from the epicenter of the storm. Ten miles is also about as far as you can audibly hear thunder. So, an easy rule of thumb is, if you can hear thunder, there’s a chance you could be struck by lightning.

When lightning is about to strike, electricity is literally in the air. Metal objects such as railing and even jewelry can start to buzz. Your hair will even start to stand on end because it’s being charged with static electricity. If any of these things start to happen, don’t admire it and take silly hair selfies for Instagram, it’s time to find shelter.

Being struck

Distant view of large storm clouds with bright flashes of lightning
Credit: Cammie Czuchnicki/ Shutterstock

Unfortunately, human bodies are great conductors of electricity. It’s helpful when it comes to transmitting brain signals, but not so much for avoiding electrocution. Lightning can travel from the clouds, through your body and into the ground in about three milliseconds. That doesn’t leave much time to run away.

In that short time, 300,000 volts of electricity will pass through your body causing third-degree burns and potentially setting your clothes and hair on fire. Conductive jewelry can become superheated from the energy and sear your skin further. The shock of the energy can shred your clothes and literally knock you out of your shoes.

After effects

Lightning bolt brightly lit up against dark clouds
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Naturally, an event like that isn’t going to feel pleasant. Most lightning strike victims are immediately knocked unconscious. Intricate bruises that follow the electricity’s path through the body will form. These are called Lichtenberg Figures. Temporary blindness and deafness are also common following a lightning strike.

More lasting effects can include chronic pain, trouble balancing, loss of motor functions, memory issues and even personality changes. Many people who have survived a lightning strike report life-changing effects that prevent them from working or holding onto relationships. Nothing is standard, however. Many report individual effects.

Of course, that amount of electricity has the potential to stop internal organs altogether causing immediate death. Despite the overwhelming severity, there’s only a 10% chance of death following a lightning strike.

Different types of strikes

Aerial view of severe lightning storm with multiple lightning bolts connecting
Credit: HE68/ Shutterstock

There are five different ways that lightning can enter your body:

  • Direct strike – the most severe and typically occurs in open areas.
  • Side flash – when lightning strikes a taller object and some of the current jumps to the nearby victim. This is why it’s not suggested to take shelter under a tree.
  • Ground current – when lightning strikes the ground, electrifying the area. This is the most common type of strike because it covers the most area. It can also travel through other conductive materials like cement floors with metal reinforcements.
  • Conduction – when lightning strikes a conductive object that carries the electricity over distances. Metal wires, plumbing, and building supports are common conductors.
  • Streamers – the least common type of strike. As the main bolt approaches the ground, objects that conduct electricity, even humans, have the potential to produce streamers, or an electrical link with the storm cloud. If the main current connects to a streamer, once it’s released, the streamer then sends an electrical signal back up to the cloud.