Tom Skilling explains the dangers of lightning, thunderstorms


CHICAGO — Lightning strike injuries have been in the news in recent days.

In Chicago, a teenage girl was struck and seriously injured by lightning while exploring the gardens at Garfield Observatory. Two people were killed in a lightning strike near the White House.

Each incident brings the issue of lightning strike safety to the fore. Read the news of recent lightning strikes here:

The danger posed by lightning, especially in this season of outdoor work and activities, is ignored by too many but shouldn’t be.

Professor-Emeritus Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, lightning strike injury specialist at the University of Illinois Chicago, has always referred to lightning strikes as life altering events — even for those who survive them.

Cooper urged us to put the following words into practice: “When thunder roars, go indoors.”

As horrific as being struck by lightning is, the full range of medical impacts because of a lightning strike may surprise many.

There are physical and psychological impacts far beyond those most are aware of — and they continue years, sometimes a lifetime, after the lightning strike itself.

The impacts include the following:

  • Lightning is primarily an injury to the nervous system, often with brain injury and nerve injury. Serious burns seldom occur. People who do not suffer cardiac arrest at the time of the incident may experience lesser symptoms, which often clear over a few days:
  • Muscle soreness
  • Headache, nausea, stomach upset and other post-concussion types of symptoms
  • Mild confusion, memory slowness or mental clouding
  • Dizziness, balance problems
  • Longer Term Problems
  • Most survivors experience only some of the symptoms below:
  • Problems coding new information and accessing old information
  • Problems multitasking
  • Slower reaction time
  • Distractibility
  • Irritability and personality change
  • Inattentiveness or forgetfulness
  • Headaches which do not resolve with usual OTC meds
  • Chronic pain from nerve injury
  • Ringing in the ears and dizziness or balance problems
  • Difficulty sleeping, sometimes sleeping excessively at first and later only two or three hours at a time
  • Delayed Symptoms
  • Personality changes/self-isolation
  • Irritability and embarrassment because they can’t remember people, job responsibilities and key information
  • Difficulty carrying on a conversation
  • Depression
  • Chronic pain and headaches

Friends, family and co-workers who see the same external person may not understand why the survivor is so different. Friends may stop coming by or asking them to participate in activities or survivors may self-isolate out of embarrassment or irritability. As with other disabilities, families who are not committed to each other are more likely to break up.

Read more about lightning safety on the National Weather Service lighting safety page.

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