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What happens if a person is struck by lightning?

Each year, approximately 100 Australians are struck by lightning. And while experts say up to 90 per cent of them recover and continue to lead healthy lives, the immediate and long-term effects can be devastating. 

When lightning strikes, it unleashes a torrent of electrical energy that can exceed millions of volts. This surge can cause cardiac arrest as the heart is overwhelmed by the electrical charge. The State Emergency Service (SES) in Sydney is emphasising the importance of taking shelter during storms to avoid being struck by lightning.

Here’s what happens when a person is struck by lightning and how you can stay safe in a storm.

Do not seek refuge under a tree

Patrick Murch, from the SES, highlighted that seeking refuge under a tree is one of the most hazardous choices you can make during a lightning storm. Trees attract lightning because they are the quickest pathway to the ground.

“A significant number of injuries do result from people being on or near trees during lightning storms because that ground around the tree becomes electrified,” he said.

“[As] the lightning moves through that object it will spread out across the ground.

“Water is a great conductor so if it is wet on the ground, it can potentially spread further than you’re anticipating.”

To stay safe during a storm, the SES advises finding shelter indoors or, if that’s not possible, making yourself as low to the ground as possible. Avoiding hills or high points is crucial, as lightning tends to strike the tallest objects in an area. If you’re caught in a storm while in your car, stay inside; vehicles are designed to ground the electrical charge, protecting the occupants.

How does lightning affect your body?

The physical impact of a lightning strike is severe, primarily affecting the heart and nervous system. Specialist GP Rebeka Hoffman explains that the heart can stop or go into an irregular rhythm, necessitating immediate hospitalisation for cardiac monitoring. Victims can also suffer severe burns at the entry and exit points of the lightning, as well as trauma to the brain from the strike itself or from falling objects.

“What determines it is the strength of the storm – so how much electricity there is – as well as if there is something like a large tree branch, or a building, or something that falls on top of you at the same time,” says Dr Hoffman.

“The trauma associated with something falling is often as bad if not more significant than the lightning strike itself.”

The long-term health impacts

A lightning strike is estimated to heat the air around it to a temperature at least four times hotter than the surface of the sun.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, lightning was responsible for 21 deaths across Australia from 2011 to 2021. Long-term health impacts are a concern for about 10 per cent of lightning strike survivors. These can range from ongoing cardiac issues to memory loss, cognitive difficulties, and psychological problems such as depression, PTSD, and cognitive disturbance. The strength of the storm and concurrent injuries from falling debris can exacerbate these long-term effects.

How can you help someone who has been struck by lightning?

In the unfortunate event that you encounter someone who has been struck by lightning, it’s crucial to act swiftly and safely. Call 000 immediately to request an ambulance. According to Australia Wide First Aid, it is safe to approach and touch the person, as they will not retain an electrical charge. Check their responsiveness and breathing, and administer CPR if necessary, continuing until medical help arrives or the person recovers.

The aftermath of a lightning strike can be as sudden as the bolt itself, leaving individuals and families to deal with the shock and the potential for lasting consequences. Always respect the power of nature and prioritise your safety during storms. Remember, when thunder roars, go indoors, and stay informed about the best practices to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Have you ever been struck by lightning? Do you know someone who has? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also read: How to cope with the immediate effects of extreme weather

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Ellie Baxter
Ellie Baxter
Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.


  1. I have never been hit but have been close to many strikes. There is a loud click a couple of seconds before the strike.
    A house I lived in was struck multiple times during one storm. Rattled up the iron roof. Blew up light globes. Destroyed various electrical appliances. House was high set on steel stumps and power flashed between them downstairs burning items that were attached to them.
    Have also been near tall trees that were split vertically when hit.
    My advice is if a severe electrical storm is approaching unplug your electrical appliances and stay inside keeping away from anything metal. If outside seek shelter before the storm gets close.
    And under no circumstances fly a kite LOL>

  2. I saw the lightning com,e in to laundry around crack at side of door!. I believe as I was wearing a medical alarm, it was attracted to that as it contained Bluetooth. My chest contents “jumped” & I was left with mild pressure on chest.
    Next day had an ECG & GP said no after effect.
    Who would have thought that would happen?
    Now if thunder storm nearby I remove my alarm pendant!

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