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Leeches are bloodsucking parasites that can be found in bodies of freshwater all over the world. While the sight of a creature latched on to your skin and making you into an unwilling blood donor can make you panic, they’re relatively easy to remove and the wound they leave is easy to treat… if you know how.

Leeches are small invertebrates that can be found on almost every continent. They can vary in size from half an inch to more than a foot long, like the Giant Amazon Leech. Most of them are freshwater creatures, but some can be found on land and even in seawater. While most leeches are carnivores, their more famous members are known for sucking blood for their food.

Are they dangerous?

Bites from leeches are more annoying than dangerous. While there is a small amount of pain associated with leech bites, hosts usually fail to recognize them and feel nothing. This is because the area that the leech has attached itself to is numbed, like in the case of feet or other body parts submerged in water for a long time. Additionally, leech saliva contains an anticlotting agent to ensure the blood flows freely, In fact, leeches have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, and are still utilized up to this day in modern hospitals to help in surgical procedures. The anticoagulant that they release when feeding on blood helps prevent clots in patients and helps promote proper blood circulation in veins.

Leeches can be beneficial in special surgical procedures, like finger reattachment, because of their medicinal properties. They release an anticoagulant which prevents blood clotting and keeps the blood flowing at a steady and manageable rate, which is important when reattaching veins in the body.

Leeches usually carry parasites in them, but these parasites won’t be able to survive inside the human body and do not pose a threat. It’s possible for leeches to acquire viruses from previous hosts and contain them in their bodies for months, but cases wherein these pathogens are transferred to a human are rare.

Like any open wound, the real danger from leeches comes from infection, and is usually the result of improperly removing the leech and leaving the wound untreated. Another dangerous (but less rare) scenario involving leeches is if they manage to get inside an orifice, such as your nose, ears or mouth, where they can get too big after engorging themselves and get stuck. Allergic reactions from a bite, while uncommon, are also possible.

Removing leeches

After hours of wading in the water, your feet could get numb and it’s easy to miss the leech that managed to make you into its meal. Don’t rip them off in a panic—they can be safely removed with a little knowledge.

It’s easy to miss leeches that manage to attach themselves on you. But when you do spot them, don’t panic! You’ll do more harm than good if you abruptly rip them off you.

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Here’s the proper way to remove them:

  1. Look for the others
    If you find one attached to you, it’s possible to find others.
  2. Wait it out
    If it doesn’t bother you, you can wait for them to finish their meal. Once they’re full, they fall off on their own. Although they can take blood from your body, the amount isn’t great enough to cause concern.A leech can take anywhere between 30 minutes to more than an hour before it gets its fill. But if this doesn’t suit you, read on for immediate leech removal.
  3. Locate the head
    The head is the narrow end of the leech. The broad end is its sucker, which it uses to secure itself in place.
  4. Detach the head
    Place your fingernail (or any flat and rigid tool, like a plastic card) beside its head and slide it underneath until the head is completely separated from your skin.
  5. Flick it off
    The leech will attempt to attach itself again to you as soon as it can, so dispose of it far away from any part of your body as quickly as you can. Ideally, use an object to flick or fling it away, since it might re-attach itself to your hand.
  6. Treat the wound
    The wound made by the parasite could bleed for hours because of the anticoagulant it uses to help it get an uninterrupted blood supply when feeding. If left untreated, the wound could get infected and cause serious problems later on.Wash the wound with soap and water and dry with a clean cloth or paper towel. You can use iodine or alcohol to sanitize the wound and the surrounding areas before applying a clean gauze or bandage. Since the wound will keep on bleeding for a while, you’ll have to replace the bandage multiple times in a day. If it keeps bleeding for a couple of days, you’ll have to consult a medical professional.

What NOT to do

Removing leeches can be a simple and painless process without much adverse effects, but some persistent beliefs are still out there and can do more harm than good. These include:

While it’s possible to quickly detach a leech with a small flame, this is not recommended and can do more harm than good—the leech can regurgitate the contents of its stomach into your wound, and get it infected.

  • Ripping them away
    This is the typically understandable, but improper, reflex of most people. Ripping the leech off can cause its mouthparts to be left behind, leave a nastier wound, and increase the chances of an infection.
  • Enticing them to detach
    While salt, shampoo, or a small flame from a lighter can make the leech detach itself from you, it can also make the leech empty the contents of its stomach into your wound. A leech can host many pathogens in its digestive system, and transferring more of these pathogens to your wound greatly increases the chances of an infection. Either leave them alone until they detach themselves on their own, or take them out properly.

Final words

While leeches are more of an irritation than a serious threat, bite prevention is still ideal when it comes to these bloodsuckers.

If you want to avoid being bitten, be aware of their aquatic and low-foliage habitats, and take the necessary precautions. Wear protective clothing, and for exposed skin, spray some insect repellent. If you’re going through an area where leeches can be found, periodically check for leeches on your body. Leeches and their bite aren’t usually dangerous, but only if you know the proper way of dealing with them.

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