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Damaging Bolts From the Blue

When lightning strikes, you don't have to be hit to be hurt

SATURDAY, May 10 , 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Lightning is a dangerous and common weather phenomenon. Since 1959, only floods have claimed more Americans'lives during stormy weather.

According to Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, of the Lightning Injury Research Program at the University of Illinois, there are as many as 125 fatal lightning injuries each year. Even so, almost 90 percent of those who are struck survive.

Unfortunately, a large number of these survivors suffer permanent disabilities, most of which involve the nervous system, including the brain and autonomic and peripheral nerves.

Symptoms of lightning-related nervous system trauma include persistent difficulty with short-term memory, coding new information and accessing old information, distractibility, irritability and personality change. It is not uncommon for survivors of a lightning strike to express frustration when presented with a number of tasks that need simultaneous attention. Experts believe damage to the executive functions of the brain is probably responsible for most of the problems.

Although lightning is a form of electricity, it seldom causes the injuries associated with high voltage electrical current, such as massive internal tissue damage. Lightning also doesn't usually result in serious or extensive burns. In fact, most burns associated with lightning are caused by other objects heating up and burning the skin, rather than by contact with the lightning itself.

Right after being struck, survivors tend to complain of intense headaches, ringing in the ears, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms that also occur in post-concussion syndrome. Survivors may also experience difficulty sleeping, sometimes sleeping excessively after the injury but changing during the next few weeks to inability to sleep more than two or three hours at a time. A few may develop persistent seizure-like activity several weeks to months after the injury.

Many of those who survive such an event experience difficulties for months or years after being struck.

More information

Learn more about lightning injuries and their prevention and treatment from the American College of Emergency Physicians.

SOURCE: Mary Ann Cooper, M.D., Lightning Injury Research Program, University of Illinois, Chicago
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