Anyone who watched the classic 1986 Rob Reiner film Stand by Me, inspired by a Stephen King story called “The Body” probably already has a lifelong fear of leeches. And if you’re not in that category, don’t worry: you’ll fear and loathe these onerous bloodsuckers within a paragraph or two. But don’t go! Stay and read, because if you ever find yourself in the decidedly unenviable position of having a leech attached to your body, or to the body of a loved one, friend, or pet, you’re going to want to know how to remove leeches in the most expedient manner possible.
If you currently have a leech adhering to your body, skip down a few hundred words and get that sumbitch off you. If you have the luxury of a few minutes, let’s first learn a bit about these creatures.
What Is a Leech, Anyway?
Leeches, to use the scientific term, are just awful. Broadly speaking, they are a member of the annelid phylum of animals of segmented worm-like creatures. They are close cousins of the benign earthworm, differing in that instead of the plant matter, fungus, and carrion worms eat, leeches feed on blood. Actually, to be fair, only about 75% of the known 700-odd species of leech suck the blood of a hapless host; the remaining quarter of leech species are predatory, actually eating other animals.
Fewer than a hundred species of leeches live on land, with about a hundred living in salt water. The other 500 or so species live in fresh water, and it’s during a dip in river, lake, or stream that you’re most likely to come in contact with one of these
Bloodsucking leeches have three blade-like teeth set into their jaws that they use to chew open a wound on host’s body. They then attach themselves to the flesh using a sticky mucous and suction and begin to suck blood out while releasing the anticoagulant hirudin into the bloodstream of their victim. Most species also have an posterior sucker (aka a rear sucker.) that also helps keep them in place while they suck. Your blood, that is.
(And in my 2014 novel Outrider, leech was the name given to power thieves illegally draining electricity from the Sunfield of New Las Vegas. Shameless plug much.)
Are Leech Bites Dangerous?
Not really, actually, except for the lack of sleep caused by nightmares. Leech bites rarely leave more than a minor flesh wound behind and are unlikely to cause any lasting harm. There’s a good chance you would not even notice a bite or two from a smaller leech, though larger species and specimens can cause pain.
The real danger from a leech bite comes from improper removal, which can cause the vile little critters to regurgitate while detaching, potentially introducing dangerous bacteria from their gut into your blood.
How to Remove a Leech (The Right Way)
So, you have a leech sucking your blood, ey? Well, that sucks. But we’ll get that thing off you right quick! Here’s how to do it:
- Stop screaming and swearing and weeping and maybe even peeing a little, you’ll be fine.
- Identify the anterior sucker/mouth of the leech, which is usually at the narrower end of the animal.
- Use a flat, blunt object, ideally a credit card or other similar tool, though a fingernail can suffice, and slowly but firmly slide the edge between the sucker and the skin.
- Once the suction breaks and the leech’s head detaches, grab the body with your fingers to dislodge the posterior sucker (or dig under it with your flat, broad implement) and then throw that thing as hard and far as you can! Or actually just drop it back into the water gently — horrifying as they may be, leeches are just another one of earth’s creatures and they mean you no personal harm.
And for the record, once full, a leech will drop off itself, and usually in about a half hour. So if you can stomach it, just wait it out for the cleanest removal.
Once the leech is off, clean the bite with water and an antiseptic, dry the area, then clean again, ideally with hydrogen peroxide, which can reduce the effects of the anticoagulant.
How to Remove a Leech (The Wrong Way)
People remove leeches in all sorts of ways, the most common being with a terrified swatting and/or grabbing before reason has set in. If you roughly yank a leech off your skin, you run the risk of causing it to vomit out potentially bacteria-filled blood, as mentioned before.
Other common but inadvisable leech removal techniques include burning it with a flame or with the embers of a cigar or cigarette, or dumping salt or vinegar over the animal. These approaches will get the leech off, but they increase the risk of infection for you, and they’re needlessly cruel to the animal.
Why Were Leeches Used In Medicine?
For thousands of years, “doctors” used leeches (and knives and needles and such) to bleed patients suffering with everything from the Bubonic Plague to insomnia to pneumonia to halitosis (probably). People believed that bloodletting could help re-balance the body’s “humours,” the vital fluids that worked in concert to maintain proper health.
In fact, of course, bloodletting is the diametric opposite of what sick people need, but the practice remained common into the 19th century.
There are, however, a few instances in which bloodletting, and often with the use of leeches, is practiced today, and with the countenance of the scientific/medical community, no less. The condition often known as hemochromatosis – or “iron overload” in laymen’s terms – is a disorder that can affect the liver, heart, and various hormone functions, with the treatment often involving a course of bloodletting. Though doctors usually prefer to call it venesection these days.
For other creepy-crawly and insect avoidance techniques, read up on the best insect repellents to keep you bite-free while in the wilderness,