Projection, burns, irritation… What are the effects of lightning on the human body?

The storm suddenly hit Vieux-Rochers beach, in Vallauris (Alpes-Maritimes). Sunday, in this town near Antibes, a child of around ten years old was struck by lightning while he was swimming with his father. Hospitalized, he is in a state of absolute emergency. Like him, around a hundred people are affected by this type of accident each year in France. While Météo France has once again issued an orange alert for thunderstorms for the coming days, 20 minutes was interested in the consequences of lightning strike (term used when a person survives a lightning strike).

In terms of numbers, lightning is 100 million volts, 30,000 amps. This natural atmospheric electricity is stored by a cloud, which, when saturated, discharges towards the ground. “The heat released can reach 30,000 degrees. It leaves me perplexed as to the survival of the person affected,” recognizes Christian Virenque, professor emeritus at Toulouse University Hospital, specialist in lightning. And yet, 70% of them survive, estimates the professor. The remaining 30% are struck by lightning: that is to say, they die at the moment of the shock. For these people, “the enormous mass of energy received ‘coagulates’ the subject, as during a capital execution by the electric chair”, we can read in a document produced by the researcher in keraunopathology and keraunic medicine (the name of lightning medicine). Death can also occur after cardiac or respiratory arrest, if a massage is not provided within a few minutes of the shock.

Projected over 15 meters

The accident itself is often very impressive. “It’s a snapshot. Sometimes there is an immediate loss of consciousness, the subject sees a huge flash and hears thunder simultaneously. Often the person is thrown, sometimes up to 15 meters, with all the energy falling on them and tearing their clothes,” explains the specialist. The phenomenon can also affect several people at the same time. At the beginning of June, a group of children playing football were attacked in Pas-de-Calais. “The football field was very clear, without any particular risk: a child had a cardiac arrest and several people were transported to Lille University Hospital for intensive care. Other children were more lightly injured and others had no particular manifestation, apart from fear,” notes Christian Virenque.

These differences are found in the symptoms described by fulgurates, and which remain a mystery for medicine. “No two lightning bolts are alike. The more cases we see, the more we are convinced that there is no typical profile. Everyone has their own board,” explains the professor. “Cardiac arrest is not the only consequence of a burst. The most spectacular are the burns. Normally, at 30,000 degrees, we are carbonized, but here, we observe a dilution on the skin. We therefore see traces of first or second degree burns, not that big. »

The Lichtenberg figures are one of them. These burns, shaped like a fern or tree, freeze on the skin and are characteristic of fulgurates. “It’s a very light first-degree subcutaneous burn, like a tattoo. It only lasts a few minutes. It’s a kind of signature that authenticates lightning. » Lightning burn can also blind the patient.

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Thunderstorms often victims of post-traumatic shock

In the minutes or hours after the shock, other symptoms may appear. “We see people who can no longer write, no longer speak, who have tinnitus, noises in the ears that they can no longer get rid of, which sometimes last for years. Some have all four limbs paralyzed, they no longer move at all, it lasts up to 48 hours and it passes,” says the specialist. “One can have the feeling of an anesthetized limb, or on the contrary an excitement of sensitivity, with tingling, irritations…” This is the result of the passage of current through the muscles, nerves and the brain.

These effects are reversible in the majority of cases. “The opposite of the psychological dimension,” warns Christian Virenque. “It’s a phenomenon that definitely leaves its mark on you. At first, people are euphoric at having survived, but a few days to a few weeks later, we see depression, but also post-traumatic syndrome. It’s a sort of awakening of the phenomenon that will prevent you from sleeping, working or living with your family…”, describes the person who is currently launching a working group to advance research on fulgurates.

These accidents, sometimes with dramatic consequences, can be avoided by taking simple precautions. “We ask people never to swim when there is a storm, and not to be near trees or metal structures. Instead, you have to take shelter, in a car, for example,” recalls Captain Eric Brocardi, member of the National Federation of Firefighters. This type of phenomenon can happen at any time, outdoors or indoors (via plugged-in electrical appliances), directly or indirectly, he recalls. If a person is nevertheless struck by lightning, the captain reminds us of two vital reflexes to adopt if you witness this type of scene: call the firefighters and be able to geolocate yourself precisely, to be found as quickly as possible. possible by emergency services.

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