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Summer Is Peak Time for Lightning Strikes

The rule of thumb? 'When thunder roars, go indoors'

SATURDAY, July 12 (HealthDay News) -- Summer is the peak time for Americans to be active outdoors, so it is also the time for them to be most aware of the dangers of lightning.

"The rule is, 'When thunder roars, go indoors,'" Mary Ann Cooper, director of the lightning injury research program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said in a prepared statement. "Decisions about lightning safety must be made by the individual, but education can help people reduce their chances of being struck by lightning."

About 50 Americans are struck and killed by lightning every year, with the summer months being the time when the most lightning-related injuries occur, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

"Most people seriously underestimate the risk of being struck and do not know when or where to take shelter," said Cooper, who works closely with NOAA's National Weather Service in its annual lightning education program. Lightning can hit even before the rain starts, striking as far as 10 miles away from the rain portion of a thunderstorm, she said.

Here are some tips to improve your odds:

  • While planning outdoor activities, be aware of what shelter is available nearby in the event you hear thunder. A house, school or large building is preferred. About 98 percent of lightning strike fatalities occurred outdoors, according to NOAA data.
  • Once inside, keep away from phones (cell phones are fine), computers and other electronics pulling electricity into the structure. If lightning does enter a facility, it often does so through the electrical, phone, plumbing and radio/television reception systems, so stay away from these during storms. "Surprisingly, hard-wired phone use is the leading cause of indoor lightning injuries in the United States," Cooper said.
  • If you can't get inside a structure during a storm, get into a hardtop car, bus or truck. Never go under a tree. About 25 percent of lightning strike fatalities occurred when the person was under a tree, according to NOAA data.
  • Wait 30 minutes after the last crack of thunder or flash of lightning before resuming activities.

Even surviving a lightning strike can leave you with permanent health issues, including chronic pain, brain injury and thought-processing problems, said Cooper, who is considered the leading international expert on lightning-strike injuries.

More information

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has more about lightning safety.

-- Kevin McKeever

SOURCE: University of Illinois at Chicago, news release, June 20, 2008

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