Lichtenberg Figures

Some people who are struck by lightning don’t notice these subtle marks for the first hour afterwards, but they are soon branded with vivid patterns that resemble lightning itself. They usually appear on the neck chest, shoulders, back and arms. “The feathering marks are formed by the transmission of static electricity along the superficial blood vessels that nourish the skin,” one doctor has explained.

Cataracts and eye injuries

One extremely rare effect of being struck by lightning is an eye injury, as the brightness of the bolt and its discharge can cause lasting damage such as cataracts. Most people with this effect will end up with cataracts in both eyes, but occasionally a patient ends up with cataract damage only in the eye on the side of the body that the lightning passed through. Steroids can be used to treat some of these eye conditions.

Heart problems

Heart conditions can arise during, or even months after, you are hit by lightning. In what is known as electrical trauma, the discharge can interfere with your heart’s own electrical impulses, which can prevent it from pumping blood. This can lead to heart attacks, cardiac arrest and arrhythmia. What’s more, the shock arising from a lightning strike can set your heart racing very rapidly, which can indirectly lead to heart damage.


One person who was struck by lightning has described paralysis as the most immediately terrifying aspect of the experience: “Once I figured out I couldn’t move my legs, I started freaking out.” Around a third of lightning strike victims experience temporary paralysis in their arms and legs, in a condition known as keraunoparalysis. This condition also involves the tightening of blood vessels.

Neurological changes

Lightning strikes can rewire the brain in ways we don’t fully understand, leading to startling changes in personality that can last a lifetime. One famous example is Mary Anning, the 19th century palaeontologist known for her astonishing dinosaur discoveries. As a baby, she was reportedly frail, quiet and disengaged. However, when she was 15 months old, as three women tended to her under an elm tree, the group was struck by lightning. All of the adults died but Anning survived and thrived, leading one biographer to write: “Anning was born a dull child but after the accident grew up lively and intelligent.”

Direct strike

Florida is considered the United States’ ‘lightning capital’. Over 2,000 people have been struck by lightning there over the past 50 years, and the most deadly type of incident is the so-called ‘direct strike’. This happens when the main lightning discharge occurs through a human body, as opposed to a nearby structure or tree. You are at greatest risk from direct strikes when caught in a lightning storm in a large, open space, with no other passage available for the discharge.

Streamers and side flashes

Though less lethal, indirect strikes can also cause serious injuries during a lightning storm. ‘Streamers’ from the ground will discharge at the same time as the ‘leader’ (which comes down from the clouds), and they can discharge through a person. Other indirect hits include ‘side flashes’, when lightning hits a large object but part of the current jumps into a smaller object or person nearby. When lightning hits an object and the energy travels out along the surface ground, so-called ‘ground current’ often kills nearby farm animals.


Lightning strike incidents aren’t limited to outdoor environments – in fact, about a third of lightning injuries in the United States take place indoors. Although metal does not attract lightning, it creates a route for it. The electricity of the lightning is conducted into households via metal wiring, surfaces, power outlets, and sometimes even plumbing. The shock waves produced by lightning can be powerful enough to crack stone, bricks and concrete.

Slow motion, white light

People who have been struck by lightning often describe extreme pain, accompanied by surreal and confusing feelings. Justin Gauger, who was struck near Flagstaff, Arizona, recalls: “My whole body was just stopped—I couldn’t move any more… I can’t explain the pain except to say if you’ve ever put your finger in a light socket as a kid, multiply that feeling by a gazillion throughout your entire body. And I saw a white light surrounding my body—it was like I was in a bubble. Everything was slow motion. I felt like I was in a bubble for ever.”

Over the skin

When you are struck by lightning, most of the electricity is dispelled over your skin rather than entering your body. However, this isn’t as harmless as it sounds. It can cause your clothes to singe and catch fire, which can burn you in turn. What’s more, any metal near your body (such as rings, keys and zippers) becomes burning hot in an instant, potentially branding you. Meanwhile, sweat and moisture near your skin turn to scalding-hot steam.

Sudden death

In rare cases, a lightning strike can cause sudden death due to cardiopulmonary arrest. Cardiac issues are common in the moments the strike takes place, although some strike victims go on to develop long-terms issues with their heart and lungs. The effects on your eyesight and hearing can also be dramatic. Even if you aren’t hit by lightning, the volume of the strike can rupture your eardrums if you’re standing nearby. Temporary deafness and blindness are often reported.

Entry and exit wounds

Some lightning strike victims are left with an entry and exit wound where the current passed through; however, it can be very difficult to identify the exit wound. The effects of heat and flames may leave you with burns across your body. Medical professionals have also reported strange pink-and-brown bruises that form long, trailing patterns over the skin. It is thought that this effect may occur because the electricity forces blood out of the capillaries and into the outer layers of the skin.

The long-term effects

Depending on the intensity of the strike, long-term effects can include serious muscle injuries, which can lead to a deteriorating condition called rhabdomyolysis. Your nervous system may be damaged, and memory problems, seizures and chronic pain have also been recorded. But stranger long-term effects have also been reported. Tony Cicoria, a 42-year-old surgeon struck by lightning in 1994, became obsessed with piano music days soon after the incident, his head full of new composition ideas. He became a composer soon afterwards.

How to help

It’s important to call emergency services immediately if you have seen someone suffer a lightning strike. As long as you are clear of any further lightning strikes or weather dangers, you cannot be harmed by touching a person who has just been struck. Emergency medicine physician Dr Christopher Griggs has said that if you find multiple people have been struck by lightning, anyone qualified to do so should begin CPR on the people who appear to be dead.


The likelihood of being struck by lightning is fortunately very low, and it comes with a 90% survival rate. Your chances of being struck by lightning in any given year are less than one in a million. But to stay extra safe during lightning storms, you should seek an indoor, contained environment that is structurally sound. Man-made structures are safer than standing in the open: it is safer to take shelter under a pavilion than a tree. In particular, avoid large bodies of water. If you are in a car, stay inside it and wind your windows up.