Removing Leeches and Treating Their Bites

© Szefei |

You are unlikely to incur a bite by one of the blood sucking leeches of the Southwest. (See Leeches of the Southwest for more information.) If bitten, you are even less likely to sustain significant skin damage or contract a disease. Nevertheless, to minimize risk, you will want to dislodge the predator and treat the wound. 

Removal of the Leech

To remove a leach from its hold, "Find the skinny end [the head end] and use your finger or fingernail to push it sideways off the bite point," said authority Mark Siddall in the NOVA Science Internet site. "Once it's released, you will bleed from the wound. That's okay. The bleeding is normal and is caused by the anticoagulants the leech puts in the wound. Then, just get it to release the fat end the same way." 

You should avoid "remedies" such as simply pulling the leech from its moorings; plying it with salt, insect repellent, shampoo or vinegar; or heating it with a smoldering match, grass stem or cigarette. These techniques might cause the leech to discharge the contents of its gut, including bacteria, into the bite.  This might cause complications such as localized infection or even blood poisoning. 

Treatment of a Leech Bite

After you remove the leech, you should promptly wash the wound with soap and water, according to the Austin Health Internet site. Keep the wound clean. Apply a cold pack should you have pain or swelling. 

You could have some irritation and itching, but you should have no further problems if you have good health and no leech allergies. However, if you experience symptoms such as an ulcer, infection, itchy rash, red blotches, swelling (especially around your lips and eyes), faintness or breathing difficulties, seek medical attention promptly. 

Avoiding a Leech Bite

In infested waters, you may find leeches hard to avoid. You will attract them by movement, setting off a persistent effort to explore your body for a "suitable attachment point," according to the Field Guide to Venomous and Medically Important Invertebrates Affecting Military Operations. To reach your skin, "…they may enter any opening in clothing and have been known to go through eyelets of boots or through the fabric in loosely woven cloth." 

Various authorities suggest that you might discourage leeches by slathering your body with a strong insect repellent, moisturizer, bath soap, eucalyptus oil or lemon juice.  You might find leech socks the most effective. Tightly woven (to prevent penetration) and light colored (to enhance leech visibility), leech socks fit over outer garments, serving as a barrier. 

In the BMJ medical publication back in 1994, Anders Baerheim and Hogne Sandvik said that "Exposure to beer tended to disrupt the leeches' normal behavior..." They did not comment about the effects on humans' normal behavior.

In any event, you should inspect your body after leaving leech-infested waters, removing any of the overly friendly predators as promptly as possible.

by Jay W. Sharp

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Leeches in the Southwest




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