Lightning strikes were responsible for 47 confirmed deaths and 246 confirmed injuries last year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and summer is the peak season for lightning-related injuries.
The Fourth of July is a particularly deadly time because so many people are outdoors, says Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, professor of emergency medicine and director of the lightning injury research program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Most people seriously underestimate the risk of being struck by lightning and do not know when or where to take shelter.
"Decisions about lightning safety must be made by the individual, but education can help people reduce their chances of being struck by lightning," Cooper said.
"Even though the vast majority of those struck by lightning survive, they frequently have permanent after effects, which can include chronic pain, brain injury and thought-processing problems," said Cooper, considered by many to be the leading international expert on lightning strike injuries.
Here are some safety tips to help protect yourself from lightning strikes, courtesy of Cooper, NOAA and the National Weather Service.
"When planning outdoor activities, know what shelter is available and where to go if you hear thunder," Cooper said. When you hear thunder, go indoors immediately. Head for a house, school or large building.
"The rule is, 'when thunder roars, go indoors,'" Cooper said. If you can't get indoors, get into a hardtop car, bus or truck. Never go under a tree.
Stay off phones, computers and video games. "Surprisingly, hard-wired phone use is the leading cause of indoor lightning injuries in the United States," Cooper said. Cell phones are quite safe, aside from distracting someone from seeking safety.
Lightning can hurt you even before it begins to rain and can strike as far as 10 miles away from the rain area of a thunderstorm. "Wait 30 minutes after the last crack of thunder or flash of lightning before resuming activities or driving home," Cooper said.
During Lightning Safety Awareness Week, June 24-30, NOAA and the National Weather Service this year are highlighting safety awareness for children, with handouts, posters and outdoor risk-reduction tips.
"If we can teach children to be safe around lightning, we can change behavior forever -- and I can put myself out of a job," said Cooper, who also is an American Meteorological Society fellow and works closely with the National Weather Service in its annual education program.