Folk wisdom says the odds of a lightning strike are one in a million, but technically, it depends on how you run the numbers.
For example, the odds of being struck in your lifetime are actually 1 in 15,300, according to the most recent data from the National Weather Service.
The odds of being struck in a given year are closer to that one-in-a-million mark, though: 1 in 1,222,000. While lightning strikes seem to be no big deal in cartoons and kids’ movies, the reality is a little more shocking. According to the National Weather Service, a lightning strike can cause cardiac arrest, brain damage or death and is a major cause of storm related deaths in the United States.
Types of Strikes
There are four main types of lightning strikes.
- Cloud-to-ground: Lightning that connects from the cloud directly to the ground or objects on the ground surface
- Cloud-to-air: Lightning that occurs when the positively charged cloud and negatively charged air meet but do not reach the ground
- Cloud-to-cloud: Lightning that occurs between two or more clouds
- Intra-cloud: Lightning that is held within a cloud and illuminates during the shock
How People Are Struck
Although the chances of being struck by lightning are slim, it is important to understand how lightning strikes actually happen and differ.
- Direct strike: An object or person has become the direct channel that the lightning strike passes through
- Side flash: The lightning strike directly strikes a nearby object but transfers to the nearby object or person.
- Ground current: A lightning strike occurs directly to an object and along the ground surface. The lightning will enter the object, person or animal at the point closest to the ground and travel throughout the nervous system and/or cardiovascular system.
- Conduction: Although lightning is not directly attracted to metal, metal objects act as conductor or path for the lightning to travel. Metal wires, fences, plumbing and more are all directly related to this type of strike.
What happens when you get struck by lightning?
What happens to your body when you get struck by lightning depends on the type of strike and how powerful the strike is. Injuries include but are not limited to:
- Loss of eyesight
- Ruptured eardrum
- Respiratory arrest
- Burns that may look like Lichenberg figures or wavy lines
- Memory loss
It’s important to understand how lightning works, although variable, to beat the odds. Strikes occur when positive and negative charges build up and release the lightning bolts like an electric shock. To avoid lightning injuries, follow the recommended actions below as well as the 30-30 rule.
The 30-30 rule reminds you to count to 30 after you see lightning. If you hear thunder within 30 seconds, go indoors. Then, stay indoors for 30 minutes after hearing the last clap of thunder.
If you are indoors, you still are not 100% protected from a lightning strike. Follow the basic tips below to ensure you and your loved ones stay safe.
- Shut your blinds and curtains. Steer clear of windows, doors and porches – no matter how much you want to watch the storm.
- Stay away from plumbing (including showering, washing hands, doing laundry, etc.)
- Avoid using electrical equipment like computers, kitchen appliances or corded phones
If you cannot avoid being outdoors, follow the tips below to increase your level of safety.
- Avoid open fields, hills, isolated trees and other tall objects. Lightning usually will strike taller objects.
- Stay away from bodies of water and other wet objects. Water acts as a conductor for the electricity to pass through easily and quickly.
- Avoid metal objects like fences and flag poles. Like water, metal is a great conductor of electricity.
- If possible, take shelter in your car and avoid touching any metal objects. If shelter is not near, stay low.
It’s important to prepare for severe weather like thunderstorms. It’s also important to make sure you’re covered if something happens to your vehicle or home during a storm. Connect with your local ERIE agent to make sure you have the right homeowners and auto insurance.
This story was originally published in 2015. It was updated with new information in 2019.