Leeches can be found almost everywhere on Earth and all have one thing in common-they eat blood. Leeches are most common on mucky lake or pond bottoms waiting for an unsuspecting swimmer to latch onto. Leeches can also be found in tropical forests where they live in tree leaves. In these locations, simply stopping to catch your breath for a few minutes is all it takes to make them start dropping down on to you. There are however some significant differences between jungle and freshwater leeches.
All leeches eat blood, but the vast majority only attach themselves to snails and other small creatures. There are many different kinds of all sizes that do attach to humans and animals. All leeches bite their prey and inject an anesthetic so the host does not feel the leech while it is sucking out blood. The leech then injects an anticoagulant into the bite to thin the blood and allow it to flow easily. As the leech fills up (to between 5 and 10 times its original size) it will let go and fall off the host when it is full. Some leeches consume so much blood that they can go for several months before needing to feed again.
Leeches vary in size from a ¼” in length to several inches. Most of the leeches found in North American ponds, swamps, or lakes grow up to 2” or so and are about 1/8” to ¼” in diameter. Leeches found in some parts of the world can be the size of your little fingers, that’s enough to make your skin crawl!
Leeches are in the worm family and are actually interesting little creatures. Leeches are elongated and roughly tear drop shaped. They have mouths on both ends (the narrow end is the anterior or head), leeches also have 32 brains which is one for each of its 32 interior segments and there are over 100 exterior segments. They reproduce like worms and every leech is both male and female.
When a leech attaches to you stay calm. The best way to remove it is by pressing your fingernail on your skin and gently but deliberately scraping the anterior mouth from your skin in a slow flicking motion. Imagine your fingernail is a shield pushing up against the leech. Use the same method to remove the back end and flick the leech away. Avoid using matches, salt, cigarettes, bug spray or other methods as they can cause the leech to regurgitate back into the bite depositing many nasty things which can lead to infection. Leeches in Africa, have been found to carry HIV and Hepatitis B among other viruses. North American leeches carry less harmful bacteria but can still cause an infection if the wound is not treated.
If a leech attaches itself in your mouth try gargling or swishing a strong drinkable alcohol (whiskey or brandy for example) around then spitting it out. If all else fails use hydrogen peroxide. Dabbing a Q-tip soaked in the same products onto leeches that have attached themselves in your nose or other orifices can work as well. Leeches can also attach themselves in ears, on eye lids, in vaginal areas, and most other orifices. In these situations it is best to seek medical attention to have the leeches removed. If you are unable to reach a doctor then try breaking the leech in half and/or pulling them off as a very last resort.
Once the leech has been removed, clean the area with soap and water and a good antiseptic. The wound is usually fairly small and will not hurt much due to the anesthetic that was injected. The bite may continue to bleed for a few hours after due to the anticoagulant the leech injected to aid in feeding. In such cases it is a good idea to cover the bite with gauze or a band-aid until the bleeding stops.
Leeches are a common creature to find on your feet, ankles, or hands if you are playing or swimming in murky bottomed waters. Fisherman removing sea-weed from their lures may find one hiding in there too. Before you go jumping into new swimming areas, make sure you are prepared to remove these little blood sucking creatures first.
Copyright 2019 Mike Wilson