FRIDAY, June 6 (HealthDay News) -- Imagine you're a coach with a
dugout full of Little Leaguers, and a storm strikes. You hear
thunder. Many parents dropped off their kids and aren't there, and
the school next to the field is locked. How do you get the kids to
That's just the type of situation that Katie Walsh, director of
athletic training education at East Carolina University in
Greenville, N.C., hopes people will start to prepare for.
"Lightning is about 100 percent avoidable, but you have to have a
plan," she said.
Each year, dozens of people are killed by lightning strikes in
the United States, according to the National Weather Service, part
of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
That risk goes up considerably in the summer, when lightning-laced
thunderstorms are more apt to occur and when more people are on the
beach, in the mountains or on athletic fields and golf courses.
Walsh's university has a plan and has had to use it. "We have a
football stadium that holds 50,000 people, and we had to evacuate
it," she said. "As much as people gripe about it, I'd rather have
to evacuate the stadium than have one person hurt. I want people to
Walsh said they were lucky because there's an indoor coliseum
next to the football stadium. But that's not always the case,
especially for the myriad of youth sporting events that occupy so
many fields in warmer-weather months.
"Lightning season is April to November in many areas, and it's common between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., which is often when people are playing," she said. "So, have a plan. Is there a school bus that could be parked by the field that the coaches could take children to if a storm pops up?"
John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist with the National
Weather Service, also advocates having a plan -- one that always
starts with checking the weather. "That way you can postpone or
cancel the activity if there's a possibility of thunderstorms," he
said. "If you go ahead with your activity, stay in tune to the
forecast and keep an eye on the sky. If you hear thunder, the storm
is already close enough for lightning to strike. Seek shelter right
Safe shelters include any building with plumbing and wiring,
cars with hard tops, trucks, RVs and buses. On the not-safe list is
anything that's open to the outside, such as dugouts, bus stops,
convertibles, and even open garages.
"People think if they're not getting wet, they can't get struck, but if you're outside, you're at risk," said Walsh, who recently chaired a group writing a new position statement on lightning safety for the National Athletic Trainers' Association.
Once you're indoors, stay away from windows and doors, as well
as from anything plugged in or anything that has a direct
connection to the plumbing, according to Jensenius. "So, no washing
dishes or taking showers or baths," he said. Talking on a cordless
phone is OK, but stay off corded phones, he advised. If you're in a
car, the rubber tires won't protect you, but lightning will travel
along the outside metal of the car. To stay safe, don't touch the
metal door handles. Also, avoid touching the windshield if your
car's antenna is built into it, and leave the radio alone, too, he
If you're outside and can't find a safe shelter, look for an
area with shorter trees, but keep some distance from the trees. "If
you're with a group, spread out," Jensenius said. "This might
actually increase the risk of someone getting hit, but if you're
all together and that area gets hits, there won't be anyone who can
help," he explained.
"Avoid being, or being near, the tallest object in your immediate area," Jensenius added. "But don't be out in the open or near isolated trees, either."
If you're on the water, Walsh said, get to shore as quickly as
possible. If you're in a pool, get out and seek shelter. And, don't
go outside or in the water again until at least 30 minutes after
the lightning flash or the last clap of thunder.
If you haven't been able to find appropriate shelter and
suddenly feel your hair standing on end, the Federal Emergency
Management Agency recommends that you crouch down as low as you
can, placing your weight on the balls of your feet so that as
little of you is connected to the ground as possible. Cover your
ears with your hands and put your head between your knees to make
yourself the smallest target possible.
If the worst happens, and you or someone you're with is struck
by lightning, the first concern is sudden cardiac arrest.
"Lightning can immediately stop your heart," Walsh said. "CPR needs to be started right away." If you happen to be where there's a portable automated external defibrillator, Jensenius said, use it if the person's heart has stopped.
"If someone is moving around, or if you know they have a heartbeat, take care of others who don't," Walsh advised.
Other problems that could occur from a lightning strike are
fractures, ruptured ear drums and concussions, according to Walsh.
"People don't always come back to where they were before the
lightning strike," she said. "Some people have problems that last
the rest of their lives. They may have trouble sleeping or
Jensenius added that some people experience burns, and others
have trouble concentrating, are more forgetful, get easily
distracted or have personality changes after being hit by
lightning. Treatment, he said, depends on the particular injury,
though it begins with getting immediate medical help for anyone
who's been struck.
And, before that, it starts with a plan.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has more
A companion article details the experience of a
lightning strike survivor.
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