We use the phrase “you’re more likely to be struck by lightning” to describe unlikely events all the time, but according to the National Weather Service, around 20 people are killed by lightning each year and hundreds more are injured. No, it’s not worth panicking about, but you still don’t want to be one of those people. Here’s how to avoid being struck by lightning, and what to do if you ever wind up that statistical anomaly.
How to avoid being struck by lightning
The most obvious applies: Don’t go outside when it’s storming. You already know that. Let’s assume, then, that you are stuck outside while an electrical storm is underway; the New York Department of Health advises you do the following:
- Avoid open fields, the tops of hills, and ridge tops
- Stay away from tall, isolated trees or any other tall objects
- If you’re in a group of people, spread out to avoid the electric current traveling from person to person if lightning does strike
- Stay away from all water and anything that might be wet
Contrary to popular belief, water and metal don’t attract lightning—but they conduct it and can carry it quite a ways. As a current will travel long distances through water and metal, it’s best not to be around either of them.
In addition to monitoring the weather using a radio or your smartphone, look for visual signs of oncoming storm: towering clouds with a shape similar to cauliflower, dark daytime skies, distant thunder, and, of course, visible lightning flashes. Get inside and take cover as soon as you notice these cues; don’t wait for lightning to strike nearby.
Even if you are indoors, you still need to take precautions to avoid certain kinds of lightning strikes. We’ll go into detail on the different types of lightning strikes below, but for now, here’s what to do when you’re inside, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Avoid water—don’t shower, wash dishes, or touch any plumbing during an electrical storm, as if the house it struck by lightning it could travel through pipes or water and into you.
- Don’t use electronic equipment, particular anything connected to an outlet.
- Don’t use a corded phone, but do feel free to use cordless or cell phones, especially if you need to call for help.
- Don’t lie or lean on concrete floors, as they may have metal wires or bars inside them which can conduct lightning.
What to do if someone near you is struck by lightning
If someone near you is struck by lightning, here’s what you do, per the New York Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and California’s Dignity Health:
- Call 911 right away.
- If multiple people were struck, help those who are unconscious first, and keep in mind they may initially appear dead.
- Move the person to a safer location if there is an ongoing danger of lightning strikes.
- Perform CPR right away (and know you are not in danger, as no electric charge remains in their body).
- Cover the person in a jacket or blanket to prevent hypothermia.
- Tend to anyone who was struck but remains conscious next, but be advised their wounds may include burns and fractures.
What to do if you are struck by lightning
It’s possible you’ll be knocked unconscious by a lightning strike, so hopefully someone is nearby to assist you. If you manage to remain conscious, call 911 right away. Sorry, that’s all we’ve got. The effects of a lightning strike can be pretty brutal, so the most important thing is to get help as soon as possible.
There are different types of lightning strikes
According to the National Weather Service, there are actually five ways lightning can strike victims, but any of them can be deadly.
- A direct strike happens when a person becomes part of the main lightning discharge channel, likely because they were in an open area. These are not particularly common, but they are potentially the most deadly.
- A side splash or side flash is when lightning strikes something taller near the victim and a portion of the current moves to them. This is why you shouldn’t shelter under a tall tree.
- A ground current strike occurs when lightning strikes an object and the energy travels outward from the strike, in and along the ground. If you’re outside near a strike, you could potentially be the victim of ground current, but know that a ground current can also travel in concrete floors containing conductive materials.
- Conduction causes most indoor lightning casualties, and some outdoor ones, too. Anyone in contact with anything connected to metal wires, plumbing, or metal surfaces that extend outside is at risk here. For this reason, do not shower, use any faucets, or touch corded phones during a storm.
- Streamers, per the NWS, “develop as the downward-moving leader approaches the ground. Typically, only one of the streamers makes contact with the leader as it approaches the ground and provides the path for the bright return stroke; however, when the main channel discharges, so do all the other streamers in the area.” Essentially, again, this means you should try to get inside when a storm approaches.
Seriously, how likely is any of this?
Don’t panic. Lightning strikes are exceedingly rare. Per the NWS, the U.S. averaged 43 reported lightning fatalities per year between 1989 and 2018. Only about 10% of those struck die, though the 90% who survive do experience varying degrees of disability. Staying alert and taking the necessary steps to avoid a strike can help you avoid being one of them.