Some things in life you’ve heard a million times without giving them a second thought, as when your mother advised you that you shouldn’t shower during a rainstorm. That was probably fine when you were younger (an excuse to get out of a bath! ), but it now seems like a tremendous nuisance.
So, what’s up with the myth that you can’t wash or bathe during a thunderstorm? There is, in fact, a real health risk there—but it’s a little more difficult than you may assume. Here’s all you need to know about why you shouldn’t shower if it’s raining outside—and what you can do instead.
What is the most important consideration during a thunderstorm?
Thunderstorms are deadly because of the lightning they generate (thunder and lightning come together, but lightning poses the bigger threat). According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, lightning is “essentially a gigantic flash of electricity in the atmosphere between clouds, the air, or the ground” (NOAA). Most storm-related lightning strikes begin within a cloud, and if they are going to strike the ground, a conduit of energy develops downward toward the surface. When lightning strikes within a hundred yards of the ground, objects such as trees, plants, and buildings begin to send up (invisible) energy sparks to meet it, according to NOAA. When one of those sparks makes contact with the downward developing channel, a massive electric current rushes down the channel, causing a ground surge.
Here’s where your health enters the picture: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lightning can affect people in a variety of ways, including direct strikes (when lightning strikes you directly, which is often fatal), contact injuries (when lightning strikes something you’re touching), and ground currents (when lightning strikes the ground and the ground current passes from the strike point, through the ground, and into you) (CDC). According to the CDC, about 10% of those struck by lightning die, generally from a heart attack. Serious injuries such as physical trauma, neurological disorders, muscular injuries, eye injuries, skin lesions, and burns are also possible.
So, why should you avoid showering during a thunderstorm?
Lightning can travel through your pipes and strike you while you’re bathing, which is a scary fact. According to Jeffrey A. Andresen, PhD, professor of geography, environment, and spatial sciences at Michigan State University, “the plumbing and other metal in our homes can serve as a conduit for electrical current.” “If lightning strikes and you are in contact with part of your home’s plumbing or other metal, you could be gravely hurt or killed when electricity flows through the metal.”
Lightning specialist Mary Ann Cooper, MD, professor emerita of emergency medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, tells Health that it’s not just the metal that’s a problem: water may also carry electrical currents from lightning. Showering during a thunderstorm exposes you to a double-whammy of electricity that can go through your pipes and into the water to shock you as you’re trying to clean up.
What causes all of this? According to Jeffrey Peters, severe weather programme coordinator and lightning safety expert at NOAA, lightning is attempting to find a way to the earth. “If lightning strikes a home directly or enters through the wiring, plumbing, or landline phone wire, the electricity will take the path of least resistance through the wires or plumbing to reach the ground,” he says—and you can get in the way of that path sometimes.
Is it dangerous to shower during a thunderstorm?
It is not common to be hurt while showering during a rainstorm, but it does happen. “Is it widespread? No, but it’s a possibility “Cooper agrees. “Except by complete avoidance, there are no absolute safety guarantees.” Professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire, Joseph Dwyer, PhD, agrees. “Lightning has the potential to kill someone taking a bath or shower, so it’s best not to chance it,” he explains.
This is extremely unlikely, yet it could happen. Nicholas Kman, MD, an emergency care physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Health, “I’ve been an ER physician for 13 years and have not seen someone struck by lightning in their house.” Still, he argues, you’re weighing the pros and cons of something simple like becoming clean vs the danger of major damage or death on the other end.
If you shower during a rainstorm and lightning strikes, you could pass out, receive burns from the hot water, experience numbness and tingling, have your heart stop, or even die, according to Kman.
It’s also crucial to remember that these dangers aren’t limited to showers or baths during a thunderstorm—anything involving pipes should be avoided if you see lightning or hear thunder outdoors. “During a thunderstorm, people should keep away from all plumbing in their home,” Peters advises. “This includes not having or doing a shower, bath, washing your hair at the sink, or soaking in a sponge bath.” During a thunderstorm, Dwyer advises against washing your hands or doing the dishes. If you have to clean yourself, use a bathing or cosmetic wipe or a splash of water from a water bottle.
When is it appropriate to shower before or after a thunderstorm?
The rule is to not rush to get a quick shower in if you hear thunder in the distance. “If you hear thunder, you’re close enough to the storm to have lightning strike your home, even if it’s not raining,” Peters adds. “Lightning can strike anywhere from three to ten miles away from the main storm.”
To be safe, experts recommend waiting 30 minutes after you last heard thunder before taking a shower or bath.