How to cope with leeches
Specialist travel health nurse Beverly Tompkins gives us the lowdown on leeches; how to avoid them and what to do if they latch on to take a bite…
Travellers with itineraries that involve trekking through rainforest and jungle environments can be at significant risk of coming into contact with leeches as they walk through damp, humid areas and wade through freshwater and rivers. They should wear leech socks to protect themselves. These come up over the knee and are made of tightly woven fabric that prevents leeches finding their way to the skin. They’re worn over socks but under trekking boots.
When leeches bite, their teeth clamp onto the skin and with suction start to feed on the host’s blood. Leeches feed for around 30 minutes but are known to take longer. Once they have finished feeding they will naturally detach themselves to digest.
Leeches are not known to spread disease, however careful removal of them is important to avoid subsequent infection at the wound site.
It is extremely difficult to detach a leech from the skin whilst it is feeding. If it is pulled off the wound is likely to bleed due to the anticoagulant the animals release to aid feeding. In this case there is a risk that the wound will become infected and ulcerated.
The best thing to do is to wait until the leech detaches itself.
In an emergency, salt, a lighter flame or cigarette to burn the leech can encourage it to release itself from the skin. However, there is a risk however that these methods of removal can cause the leech to vomit its stomach contents into the wound and cause infection.