What Actually Happens to People Who Are Hit by Lightning?

A lifetime of chronic health issues

Don't do this. Paul Hardy/Corbis

The closest most of us have likely ever been to being struck by lightning is watching poor Wile E. Coyote take a blast from an angry cloud. The odds of getting hit by lightning are roughly 1 in 1.9 million– it's just not something most of us worry about. Yet even with those long odds, people do still get hit by lightning. In the U.S., 33 people die every year from a lightning strike, and hundreds more are injured.

Run, Run Sweet Road Runner, 1965.

For all its cartoonish dramatics, that simple image of what it's like to get hit by a bolt of lightning isn't too far from the truth. In the immediate aftermath, says Ferris Jabr for Outside magazine, a direct hit leaves you smoking:

The electricity crackling over the surface of the human body singes clothing, vaporizes sweat and moisture into scalding steam, and renders metal objects like belt buckles, keys, and jewelry so hot that they burn the skin. Occasionally, all that steam even blows victims’ shoes and socks off.

Yet unlike Wile E., who can promptly dust himself off and return to his quest to catch the Road Runner, real survivors of lightning strikes rarely bounce back. The lighting that arcs across their body, writes Jabr, often brings with it a lifetime of mental and emotional distress.

In his story, Jabr recounts the tales of multiple lighting strike survivors, people who have had to learn to cope with the changes wrought by their rare altercations with nature.

For most victims, it is not the unforgettable horror of an agonizing ordeal that haunts them—many can’t even recall the incident itself; it’s the mysterious physical and psychological symptoms that emerge, often long after their immediate wounds have healed and doctors have cleared them to return to their normal routines. But nothing is normal anymore. Chronic pain, memory trouble, personality changes, and mood swings can all follow an encounter with lightning.

Lightning strikes' low headcount means that its victims just don't get as much attention from the medical community as those affected by more common issues, says Jabr, so scientists can't really offer much by way of explanation.

“The evidence suggests that lightning injuries are, for the most part, injuries to the brain, the nervous system, and the muscles,” says Jabr. “Lightning can ravage or kill cells, but it can also leave a trail of much subtler damage. Cooper and other researchers have speculated that chronic issues are the result of lightning scrambling each individual survivor’s unique internal circuitry.” More than that, though, scientists can't really say.

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