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Lightning Injuries

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Mar 5, 2023.

What are lightning injuries?

Lightning injuries occur when a person gets struck by lightning. Lightning produces an electric current that can pass through your body and damage nerves and organs.

What should I know about lightning?

  • Lightning can occur even if the sky is clear or when it is sunny.
  • Lightning can strike the same place more than once.
  • Lightning can easily travel through metal for long distances.
  • Lightning does not always hit an object.
  • Metal, such as jewelry, does not increase your risk of being hit by lightning.

How does lightning cause injuries?

Lightning may hit you directly when you are in an open area or outdoors. A lightning current may also hit a tree, building, or object and then travel to you. It can also travel from person to person or from telephone wires to you. A lightning current may also travel on the ground from the site of the strike to you. The force produced by lightning can also throw you 10 yards or more. This type of injury can damage several parts of your body because of the fall.

What are the signs and symptoms of lightning injuries?

The signs and symptoms of lightning injuries can be mild to severe. They may last for a short time or can be permanent.

  • Hearing or vision loss
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat, or chest pain
  • Headache, trouble staying awake, confusion, or dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle pain, weakness, stiffness, or temporary paralysis
  • Skin burns
  • Passing out, weak pulse, or no pulse

How are lightning injuries diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask questions about your injury and examine you. You may need one or more of the following tests:

  • Blood and urine tests: Samples of your blood and urine are tested for signs of organ damage.
  • X-rays: Healthcare providers use x-rays to find signs of damage to your bones.
  • CT scan: This test is also called a CAT scan. An x-ray uses a computer to take pictures of your head or other parts of your body. You may be given a dye before the pictures are taken to help healthcare providers see the pictures better. Tell healthcare providers if you are allergic to iodine or shellfish. You may also be allergic to the dye.
  • MRI: This scan uses powerful magnets and a computer to take pictures of your body. Your healthcare provider may use this test to check for damage to your brain or other parts of your body. You may be given dye to help the pictures show up better. Tell healthcare providers if you are allergic to iodine or shellfish. You may also be allergic to the dye. Do not enter the MRI room with anything made of metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell healthcare providers if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • ECG: This is also called an EKG. An ECG is done to check for damage or problems in your heart. A short period of electrical activity in your heart is recorded.
  • Blood gases may be checked if you are having trouble breathing. Blood is taken from an artery, usually in the wrist. Your blood is tested for the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in it. The results can tell healthcare providers how well your lungs are working.
  • A neurologic exam can show healthcare providers how well your brain works after an injury or illness. A provider will check how your pupils react to light. The provider may check your memory and how easily you wake up. Your hand grasp and balance may also be tested.

How are lightning injuries treated?

  • Medicines:
    • Alkalinizing medicine: These medicines help decrease high amounts of acid in your blood and urine caused by muscle injury.
    • Antibiotics help treat or prevent an infection caused by bacteria.
    • Diuretics: These decrease swelling in your body. You may urinate more often when you take diuretics.
    • Medicines to treat pain, swelling, or fever can cause serious problems if you have liver or kidney disease or a history of bleeding in your stomach. Tell healthcare providers if you have any of these medical conditions before you receive the medicine.
    • Other medicines: You may need to take medicine to treat other medical problems caused by lightning. These problems may include low blood pressure, seizures, or problems with your heart, kidneys, or muscles.
  • Oxygen: You may need extra oxygen to help you breathe easier. It may be given through a plastic mask over your mouth and nose. It may be given through a nasal cannula, or prongs, instead of a mask. A nasal cannula is a pair of short, thin tubes that rest just inside your nose.
  • Surgery, wound care, and other procedures: Surgery and other treatment may be needed if you have burns, wounds, or other injuries.
  • Therapy may include physical therapy, occupational therapy, or speech therapy. A physical therapist teaches you exercises to build strength, endurance, and balance. The exercises can also help reduce pain. An occupational therapist teaches you new ways to do things around the house or at work. A speech therapist helps you learn to talk or swallow more easily.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

What should I do if I find someone with a lightning injury?

Have someone call 911 right away. Check if the person is breathing. If he is not breathing, start CPR (basic life support) if you know how.

What are the risks of lightning injuries?

Even with treatment, you may still have long-term problems caused by lightning injury. These problems may include memory problems, vision problems, or movement problems. Without treatment, the problems caused by lightning injury may worsen or become permanent.

How can lightning injuries be prevented?

  • When you hear thunder, seek immediate shelter in a safe place, such as a building.
  • Turn off anything that uses electricity, such as computers, telephones, and radios.
  • If you are in an open field, squat down and put your hands over your ears. Do not stand next to objects that are taller than you are.
  • Do not touch metal objects, such as fences, bicycles, and motorcycles.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • You feel dizzy and confused, or have trouble thinking clearly.
  • You have a fast heartbeat and chest pain.
  • You have increased redness, numbness, or swelling in the burned area.
  • You have shortness of breath.
  • Your lips or fingernails turn blue.
  • Your pain does not go away, or gets worse even after you take medicine.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.