How Lightning Strikes Kill, Injure Thousands of People Every Year


Jun 26, 2020


Image credit: EPA

In the early stages of the monsoon in India this year, at least 107 people have died from lightning strikes, both in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, government officials announced Thursday. Common around this time of year, lightning strikes kill or maim thousands of people each year, making it a not-as-uncommon phenomenon as popularly believed. 

How do lightning strikes work? 

Lightning can injure or kill people in three major ways. The direct strike — one of the most popular but least common — is when a ray of lightning strikes a person in an open area straight from the sky. It’s the most deadly, but it “hardly ever happens,” American meteorologist, Ron Holle, tells The Washington Post. Another kind is the contact strike, also called conduction, during which the lightning travels in wires, water pipes, and through metal surfaces. It’s likely to mostly injure people indoors who are using electrical appliances, handling a metal object, or taking a shower. Both contact and direct strikes make up 3-5% of all lightning-related deaths and injuries.

The biggest danger, when lightning strikes, manifests in the form of ground currents, in which the electricity from the lightning spreads out in the form of a deadly current on the ground, gradually getting weaker as it moves away from the point of contact. This spreading out forms an arc on the ground, almost as far as 60 feet from where the lightning originally hit. 

How does a person get hurt by a lightning strike? 

Lightning flows on a person’s skin and enters their body through a contact point to travel through the nervous or cardiovascular systems. The bigger the body, the more space the lightning has to travel inside the body, and the more damage it does to the human or animal. 

The most common way people get injured by lightning is through these ground currents. If a person is standing anywhere in the arc, it’s likely the current from the ground travels up the person’s body through their leg, impairing or completely stopping the person’s heart or breathing, then moving down the other leg and out. It can cause cardiac arrest, severe burns, permanent brain damage, memory loss and personality change.

Lightning injures more people than it kills; 90% of people hit by lightning survive, possibly with long-lasting neurological damage, lightning injuries expert, Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, tells the Washington Post. 

What are some safety precautions that reduce the risk of being struck by lightning? 

According to National Geographic: Avoid being on the phone, in contact with metal surfaces or concrete walls, directly touching plumbing or electrical systems during a thunderstorm, or being near windows or doors. 

While the odds of being struck by lightning remain slim throughout the year, India’s latest numbers show the chances of being injured due to lightning shoot up during the monsoon. Above all, it’s imperative people remember one simple rule: “when thunder roars, go indoors.”


Written By Rajvi Desai

Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle’s Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she’s interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team’s podcast, Respectfully Disagree.


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