Survival doctor: Be prepared for lightning risk

By: James Hubbard Special to The Gazette
June 18, 2013
photo - A bolt of lightning strikes on the hills west of downtown as a storm moves through downtown around 3 p.m. on Thursday, June 17, 2004.
Photo by David Bitton
A bolt of lightning strikes on the hills west of downtown as a storm moves through downtown around 3 p.m. on Thursday, June 17, 2004. Photo by David Bitton 

You're hiking in the woods when a thunderstorm forms overhead. As a knowledgeable outdoors person, you recognize it's time to seek shelter from possible lightning.

But there are all of those trees. OK, get away from them. But then you'll be exposed. What to do?

There's got to be a better option than "hope for the best." And in Colorado Springs, we'd better know what it is.

Colorado has the dubious distinction of being a top state for lightning strikes. But the news gets worse: Colorado Springs has the most strikes to people in our state.

According to the National Weather Service, 10 people have died and 59 have been injured by lightning in the Pikes Peak region since 1980. The strikes usually happen in the summer - prime time for hiking.

How much danger am I in?

If you want to approximate how many miles a storm is from you, count the number of seconds between seeing lightning and hearing thunder. Divide by five.

Work those numbers from inside a house or car if possible. Stay there until you haven't heard any thunder for at least 30 minutes. Lightning can strike from a storm that's 10 miles away - even farther. And you can only hear thunder if a storm is within about 10 miles. Do the math.

By a large margin, lightning strikes people who are outside. But if you're inside, that doesn't mean it's OK to stand near big windows, plumbing fixtures or electrical appliances during a storm.

What if I can't get inside?

If you're stuck outside, remember that lightning typically strikes the tallest thing around. You don't want to be that object, and you don't want to be near that object. So your best bet is to find a clump of shorter trees that's close to taller ones. And if you have a choice, hunker down in a valley but never on a hill.

If you feel your hair standing on end, hear hissing, high-pitched or crackling sounds or see a blue halo around metal objects, electrical activity is building and lightning is imminent. Quickly leave the area if possible. Otherwise, crouch on the balls of your feet, and keep your head down and your hands off the ground (so if you're struck, the current won't be as likely to pass through your whole body).

Here are some facts you might consider while you're waiting:

- Even if the heart stops, CPR works more often after lightning strikes than after many other causes of heart stoppage, such as heart attacks. So if you're administering CPR, don't give up easily.

- Lightning strikes kill people about 10 percent of the time; of those who survive, many develop long-term disabilities. Possible long-term problems include loss of short-term memory, trouble thinking or concentrating, dizziness, headaches, irritability and depression. No one person will develop all of these problems, but having one or two can be debilitating, especially if they linger.

It's surprising, but many who are struck by lightning never visit a doctor. This is not a good idea as the symptoms can be delayed. Get a good checkup and follow-up to treat anything that is treatable. To otherwise cope with the symptoms, there are good support groups.

It's great to be outdoors, but heed the warnings. Don't take foolish risks. And have a safe, lightning strike-free summer.


Family doctor James Hubbard teaches how

to survive during disasters or any time you can't get expert medical help at

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