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Saturday 1 October 2016

How to avoid and get rid of leeches during your travels

Travel Pests : The Leech

The leech is one pest that horrifies many travellers when encountered. They thrive in wet areas and there is a good chance that you might have encountered one during your travels. Here are some leech facts and tips to help you avoid, remove and get rid of these persistent bloodsuckers.

A typical leech sucking blood - Representative image
A typical leech sucking blood. (Representative image)

Leeches horrify many, thanks to their creeping appearance and bloodsucking feats, but in fact they are less dangerous than mosquitoes. Leeches typically do not carry any diseases, and when they bite you, they suck your blood till their fill and fall off.

You might know there are medicinal leeches which are used for treatments since ancient times. But the way they look and the way they creep and move like an inchworm, and the way they tag on to you, can make you nervous especially if you have rarely encountered them.

Leeches are common in wet rainforests, especially during monsoon or rainy season. During this time if you stand in the wet wilderness for a minute, you can see several leeches creeping towards you! They sense heat and smell though the air, and can even sense movements through vibrations.

Some leech facts

There are several varieties of Leeches, in which most of them are found in freshwater or marine environments. Out of 680 described species, about 15% are marine, some terrestrial and the rest are freshwater [1]. They are typically non-venomous, but there are some venomous ones too, which will be thick about the middle and move sluggishly [2]. Don’t worry about the marine ones – these are leeches which are found in deep sea, and they never come near the surface or bite you at the beach. We aren’t bothered about those here.

What we typically encounter during our travels are the land leeches or perhaps freshwater leeches which are mostly amphibious – that is they live in freshwater such as lakes, streams, rivers, as well as on land, especially wet areas.

These kinds of leeches are classified under the families Hirudidae (freshwater/amphibious) and Haemadipsidae (land or terrestrial leeches only). Out of these kinds, in India alone there are at least 12 kinds of leeches that attack humans or animals, with at least four kinds which deliver very painful bites! [2]

A typical leech displaying an inchworm like movement...
Leech video by Mikeybear (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
Leeches aren’t deadly, and are not known to transmit grave diseases. They aren’t really horrific, but it’s their slimy appearance and the way they creep that disgust many.

However, there are some rare cases of adverse effects caused by leech bite, which may cause severe allergic symptoms in some people [3][4]. Also, some bacteria or viruses from previous sources of blood are found to survive in the leech for several months, which can be a potential cause of viral infection. However there are very less reported cases of diseases transmitted by leeches [5].

We've encountered leeches several times – all along the Western Ghats especially. Leeches thrive in such regions like wet tropical rainforests. The ones we encountered were slimy black or dark brown ones. Let me mention a few: I encountered a leech in Coorg, or Kodagu in Karnataka, during our trip. It was a small one trying to get a bite on my hand that I got rid of easily. The next one was in Wayanad in Kerala when a leech made its way into our room being a stowaway on Nataraj. The horrific creature wouldn’t die even if stomped on. It would expand like rubber and live on! Finally some fire put an end to it. Another time we met one over wet leaves by a road, on way to Sringeri and Chikkamagalur. We spotted it before it could get near us. These three cases were during the monsoon, with the Wayanad one being in the month of September when there were occasional monsoon showers.

The kind of leech you will typically encounter in wet areas will be slimy black or dark brown ones. These will tag or attach on to your skin, bite through your skin layer and tap into your blood with the help of their teeth, and begin sucking your blood. But they will not burrow into your skin. The below tips are for the above-mentioned kind of leeches which we commonly encounter in wet forests and vegetation during our travels or during a hike through wilderness.

Leeches - Representative image
Leeches (Representative image)

Okay, enough scaring you with the leech stories, let’s get to the point. Regular hikers would laugh it off as they would have encountered these several times.

Leech Removal: Remove a leech that is sucking your blood

It is quite easy to keep away a leech or to get it off. There are many methods to get rid of a leech, if it is biting you. Here are some:
  1. Light a fire – If you have a lighter, just light a fire. Even better – heat up your pocket knife with it and touch the leech with the hot metal. It will leave you immediately. Knock it off your body.
  2. Use Salt – Put some salt on it. It will leave you and fall off.
  3. Use some apple cider vinegar on it. Like salt, this can also kill it.

  4. Some bug sprays can kill leeches, but we don’t recommend those, as their chemicals could enter your veins through the open wound. Now, the top 3 methods are easy, but it will be quite some work if there are a lot of leeches. This can happen when you are in wilderness surrounded by wet rainforest or wet leaves.

    However, the above three methods are not recommended by some, as when you use any one of the methods 1, 2 and 3, the leech will be in tremendous pain, and it can “vomit” out the contents in its stomach. These expelled leech contents might cause infection when mixed with your blood, as your wound, or the part where the leech was sucking your blood, would be open and bleeding. However the cases where one gets badly infected due to leeches are very rare.

    Never try to pull the leech with brute force by pulling its rear or middle side, while it has a grip on you and is still sucking, as doing so can cause any infectious pathogens inside the disgorging leech to enter your bloodstream.

    The best way is,
  5. Reaching the mouth portion of the leech (the smaller or thinner end of the leech) – the part where it has tagged on to your skin and is sucking blood. Just move your fingernail or any thin, blunt object at the place where it is attached to your skin. Slide your fingernail or object between its jaws and your skin, making it lose its grip on you and get detached. Then just throw it away immediately. It isn’t as hard as it sounds, but many would disgust at the thought of touching it with their hands.
  6. If you removed a leech and threw it close by, it will keep coming back to you. So, try throwing as far as possible, or you can chose to put some salt or vinegar over it if you really wish to kill it.
When a leech falls off after biting you, your blood will be flowing through the spot it bit, as the leech uses some anticoagulant chemicals it naturally generates to stop your blood from clotting. After some time the flow will stop and the wound begins to heal. Don’t worry, as the quantity of blood lost due to a leech will be negligible. But don’t forget to apply antiseptic on the wound to avoid infection – not only because of the leech bite itself, but also due to the open wound’s susceptibility to get infected.

Avoidance: Avoid leeches from biting you

  • You can try avoiding leeches from tagging on to you by smearing yourself with salt, on hands and legs. Put some salt inside socks, smeared to the legs, and smear some on your neck. This will discourage leeches to dig into your salty skin. Some experienced fellows I know who go on frequent hikes and trek have used salt effectively. Others from areas where leeches are common also suggested using tobacco to keep them away.
  • Also, closing your sleeves and bottoms of pants and also around the collar on the neck with a rubber band or small ropes is better, as this would stop the leech from getting inside your clothes and the probability of it reaching your private parts.
  • In highly leech infested areas, which are typically wet rainforests and wilderness during wet seasons, if you stand still for some minutes you will see several leeches moving towards you. They detect your scent and movements. Best thing is not to stand or sit at a single place for a long time.

Best practices while travelling to leech infested areas

  • Get to know the areas infested with leeches. They are found in tropical forests and wetlands, especially during the wet seasons – Monsoons or rainy seasons.
  • Go with preparation – Keep some salt or vinegar.
  • Don’t freak out if you see one. But take care they don’t get into your nose or ears (Campers take note) as it will be difficult to remove them, and they will get thick as they suck blood and can cause blockage.
  • Smear some salt over hands, legs and neck, to discourage leeches from tagging on to you. (We don’t know side effects of doing this – this may depend on any allergies you have. Check with your doctor)
  • Keep away from animals – like cattle or dogs. There can be bigger or nastier leeches on them that got attached while they went into the wilderness. There is a variety of leeches known as “cattle leech”. Some kinds of leeches found on cattle give a stronger and painful bite!
  • Those who live in leech filled areas will know better and can guide you how to deal with them. If you happen to know any take their advice. For them, these are just other bloodsucking pests like mosquitoes.
  • Severe allergic reactions to leech bites and viral infections are very rare [3][4][5], but you may chose to get your doctor's advice prior to journey on the required immediate medical care in case you develop any serious symptoms[3] after a leech bite.

We hope these tips will help you deal with your leech problems on your next travel or trek into the wilderness. Have you ever faced leeches? Have any suggestions of your own? Just leave a comment below.

Happy travelling :)

[1] Global diversity of leeches (Hirudinea) in freshwater by Boris Sket & Peter Trontelj in Freshwater Animal Diversity Assessment, Hydrobiologia (2008) 595:129–137, DOI 10.1007/s10750-007-9010-8
[2] The Leeches of India - A Handbook by Mahesh Chandra, Zoological Survey of India, Calcutta (1991), pp 1 - 117 | June 1991
[3] Leeches - Austin Health: Bites and stings
[4] A rare case of adverse effects caused by leech bite by Lok U, Bozkurt S, Okur M, Gulacti U, Hatipoglu S.; US National Library of Medicine, Published online 2013 Jun 7. doi: 10.12659/AJCR.883936
[5] Tenacity of mammalian viruses in the gut of leeches fed with porcine blood by Al-Khleif A, Roth M, Menge C, Heuser J, Baljer G, Herbst W.; Journal of Medical Microbiology 60(6):787-792 doi:10.1099/jmm.0.027250-0

Related External Links:
Leech videos on YouTube:
[1] Surviving a LEECH ATTACK! By Brave Wilderness (removes by moving his finger at bite)
[2] Leeches at Dudhsagar Falls – Goa, India by gkourounis (He salts it)

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