While Australia’s known for its snakes and spiders, the one creepy crawly you’re far more likely to meet is our leeches. Alice gives us the rundown on exactly how to avoid, remove, and maybe even appreciate our bush blood suckers.
If you’ve ever hiked in a rainforest, you’ve probably encountered a leech. For some, this is a traumatic, horror-film-esque experience featuring a slimy, mini vampire, and gushing blood.
For others, it’s a unique experience to get up close and personal with a totally fascinating animal. As you may have guessed, I’m in this second group and find leeches to be pretty darn amazing. I hope by the end of this article, you’ll agree with me, or at least not let the leeches slow you down.
What exactly is a leech?
Leeches are parasitic worms, closely related to earthworms, and there are 70 species in Australia. The leeches we all know and love are sanguivorous (blood eaters) but there are other types of leech. In fact, only 16 of the 100+ Aussie leech species actually drink blood. The one you’ve probably encountered crawling up your leg or hiding behind your ear is Chtonobdella limbate, the Australian Bush Leech.
Read more: How To Remove Ticks and Prevent Tick Bites
Where do leeches hang out?
Anywhere in Australia with water and damp areas.
While there are both land and water leeches, they’re mostly found in freshwater environments with still or slow-flowing waters, and occasionally fast-flowing streams.
The main ones we encounter are land leeches, who hang out in damp places like rainforests. They’re usually chilling on the ground or in low foliage – so you need to look out for them if you’re pushing through long grass or dangling leaves, particularly near creeks and waterfalls or after rain. They can survive for months dried out in the soil, and a sprinkling of water will bring them back to fully active, blood-sucking life within ten minutes.
Read more: 7 Tips For Rainy Day Hiking
How To Prevent a Leech Interaction
The best way to avoid a leech is to prevent them from latching on in the first place. So when hiking anywhere moist:
- Wear long pants and sleeves
- Tuck your pants into your socks or wear gaiters
- Make sure your tent is sealed at night
- Where possible, sit and rest in dry areas not damp grass
- Keep an eye on yourself and buddies – it’s easier to remove a leech if you spot it early before it’s attached
Some essential oils have been shown to repel leeches, cinnamon appears to be the most effective but eucalyptus, citronella, spearmint, and orange all may help too. Insect repellent with DEET may also help deter them, but it’s worth noting this can be harmful if it ends up in soil or waterways.
How To Remove an Overly Affectionate Leech
If you’ve been bitten by a leech, you may feel an itch or you may not spot them until it’s too late and your sock is drenched in blood. Either way, it’s best to remove them quickly and gently.
Scratch and Flick Method
Using your fingernail or a stick, scrape the head end (the skinny one) off your skin and once detached you can flick the leech away.
Alternatively, if you wait long enough they’ll drop off all by themselves once they’re finished feeding (usually 20-30 minutes).
How Not to Remove a Leech
Burning, squeezing or generally groping at the leech may lead to it regurgitating blood into the open wound on your skin. Gross for you and the leech. So while vinegar, alcohol or salt is sometimes recommended to encourage the leech to let go, the scratch method is a better option.
How To Treat a Leech Wound
Leeches secrete hirudin to stop blood from clotting, so the wound may bleed for a few hours or even a few days. Like any wound, it’s good to keep it clean and apply disinfectant. Generally they’ll leave a small red mark which will be gone in a few days.
Read more: What to Pack in Your Hiking First Aid Kit
Do leeches spread diseases?
While they may bleed for a while, and possibly itch, leech bites are more annoying than dangerous. They’re essentially harmless, making them preferable to mosquitoes, ticks, and most other bitey creepy crawlies.
Some leeches carry viruses, bacteria, and parasites, but don’t stress, it’s very rare for these to be transmitted to humans.
However, it’s worth noting that a small percentage of people have an allergic reaction to leech bites.
Leech Appreciation Society
Ok, the Leech Appreciation Society is not a thing, but maybe it should be? Read the following facts and I’m sure you’ll agree with me that leeches are pretty cool critters Who knows, maybe you’ll even appreciate them next time you encounter one on a hike:
Fun facts About Leeches
- Leeches have been used for over 2000 years medicinally – at times questionably, like when they treated ‘female hysteria’ and masturbation with bloodletting – but today they’re used to assist in advanced surgeries and to clean wounds (we humans can’t engineer an anticoagulant better than leeches can)
- While most leeches drink blood using jaws and teeth, some, like the 45cm long Giant Amazon Leech, use needle-like proboscis to feed on body fluids. Others have no jaws and swallow their prey whole (usually small invertebrates) and some parasitise other leeches
- Leeches breathe through their skin, have around 300 teeth and can survive for months on one big meal
- While they usually prefer exposed skin, leeches have been known to enter orifices and attach internally. Yep, you read that correctly – they can climb into urethras or noses and attach inside your body. Ok, maybe that fact won’t make you love leeches, but still, fascinating.
- Saltwater leeches are commonly spotted attached to numb rays – a unique Australian ray that delivers an electric shock when touched
- Leeches are hermaphroditic and lay eggs. Some leeches even care for the eggs and carry freshly hatched young to their first meal