DEAR DOCTOR K: I love to go outside during a summer thunderstorm, but my sister is convinced I’ll get hit by lightning. Do I really need to head inside when there’s a storm brewing?
DEAR READER: At the end of a stiflingly hot and humid day, when lightning flashes and thunder rumbles, it can be tempting to head outside into the cool deluge. When I was young, I did that a lot. (In fact, I did a lot of crazy things. That’s because, like many young people, I thought I was immortal. Yes, in the back of my mind I knew that people die. I guess I thought there might be an exception in my case.)
Today, I know better, and I stay indoors during electrical storms. Your sister is right: Lightning strikes that accompany thunderstorms can be hazardous. There’s a lot of electricity in a bolt of lightning. Don’t misunderstand: Getting hit by lightning is not inevitably fatal. In fact, most people live to tell the tale.
Lightning can cause first- and second-degree burns. Survivors of lightning-related injuries may end up with neurological and eye problems. And many victims experience bad, unrelenting headaches for several months.
When lighting does cause death, cardiac arrest is the most common cause. That’s because the electricity scrambles the heart’s electrical system and sets off dangerous irregular heart rhythms.
Here are some tips for staying safe in a thunderstorm:
— Seek shelter in a vehicle. If a car or bus gets hit, the electrical current stays on the outside of the metal shell of the vehicle.
— Seek shelter in a large structure and avoid small structures. Small buildings such as bus shelters or huts on golf courses may increase the risk of lightning injury if they are the tallest objects in an area. Metal poles in tents can act as lightning rods.
— Stay away from clearings and single trees. If you are in the woods, don’t head for a clearing. Take cover in an area with small trees or bushes. If you’re in an open area, don’t stand near an isolated tree. Instead, find a low-lying area and squat with your feet together and hands over your ears.
— Don’t wait till the clouds are overhead. Lightning can travel far ahead of the storm clouds producing rain. Light travels a lot faster than sound; that’s why you usually see a flash of lightning and hear the thunder later. That difference in the speed of light and the speed of sound helps you to guess how far away the lightning is. Seek shelter when the time between seeing lightning and hearing thunder is 30 seconds or less.
— Don’t go outside for at least 30 minutes after the last lightning seen. This is a good general rule of thumb. If it’s been a half-hour since the last lightning, the storm causing the lightning probably has passed.
Dr. Anthony Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School.
Send questions to Anthony L. Komaroff, M.D. through his website: www.AskDoctorK.com. You also can mail him in care of Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.