As my wife and I take care of a few last minute projects before going to bed, it is obvious a thunder storm is brewing. We haven’t seen any flashes or heard any rumbles yet, but our dog, Cody, is intermittently glued to my legs or hers. Somehow he always senses when a storm is moving our way and it terrifies him. His body shakes, his tail goes between his legs and he slinks around looking scared stiff. Normally he is not allowed on our bed, but during these storms he looks at us pleadingly and tries to sneak up one limb at a time, as if maybe we won’t notice. He looks so pitiful that we usually make an exception for such storms.
Presumably Cody has never been struck by lightning, yet he has a tremendous fear of it, as do many dogs. Apparantly he has a built in understanding of the menace of this regular natural happening.
So, given the fairly regular occurrence of impressive lightning storms here in east Tennessee, how common is lightning injury and death? There are approximately 30-40 lightning-related deaths in the U.S. each year and about 10 times that many injuries. Tennessee has ranked 5th in lightning-related deaths in the last few years. Those aren’t huge numbers, and the chance of being struck by lightning is 1 in 700,000 in any given year. However, over an average lifetime, the odds are 1 in 3,000 – not likely, but a little more threatening.
Interestingly, back in the 1940’s and before, the number of deaths from lightening numbered in the hundreds per year. Most likely the decreased numbers are due in part to some improvements in our understanding of lightning and how to maximize safety when it’s around. Given that many of us enjoy the out of doors here at the doorstep to the Smoky Mountains, there are some important ways we can stay safer when storms are around.
The bottom line for lightning safety is that the best place to be when there is a thunder storm is in a closed vehicle or building; find one if at all possible. Open-sided shelters and tents are not good protection. If a building or vehicle cannot be reached, find the lowest area you can. Avoid tall trees, other high structures, fence lines or water. If there is nothing else you can do to get away, stay in the low area and assume the lightning position, squatting with your feet together.
Most lightning injury occurs from ground currents, with side flashes from an adjoining structure being second and direct strikes being quite uncommon. Sudden cardiac death (where the heart stops) or brain injuries are some of the causes of death from lightning. However, in the U.S., only about 10% of lightning injuries result in death. Some of the other injuries include neurologic injuries similar to concussions. Individuals may have trouble with various brain functions or may even have hearing damage. Thermal burns are actually fairly unusual.
CPR may save a life if you should ever witness or rapidly come upon a victim of a lightning injury. And the idea that the victim can’t be touched due to some residual electric current in them is a myth. It is both safe and important that they be quickly checked for breathing and pulse, and CPR started if needed.
Hopefully lightning will never strike you literally or figuratively, but some of Cody’s natural fear and avoidance of it would probably do well for us as we enjoy the spectacular, but sometimes perilous, creation around us.
Andrew Smith, MD is board-certified in Family Medicine and practices at 1503 East Lamar Alexander Parkway, Maryville. Contact him at 982-0835