Leeches are found in lakes, rivers, swamps, and streams throughout the country. Some still give in to the myth that if a leech bites them, they will suffer from a parasitic effect. The reality, however, is that leeches are relatively harmless.
In fact, some medical professionals still use leeches today as a form of therapy. They have been used medicinally for several thousand years, and they are safely removed without the need of a professional.
What are Leeches?
Leeches are small black worms. They feed off the blood of a variety of creatures, but humans are not their first choice for food. Instead, they prefer reptiles, amphibians, and fish. They will use their teeth to bite into the skin and start sucking blood.
Leeches are most active in the spring, and this is their heightened season for reproduction. So, a person is more likely to be bitten in the spring when a leech is looking for food.
Leeches, however, do not graze or eat very often. Instead, one leech will go up to a year or more without feeding on any blood. They do, however, exist in high volume in waters that humans use; therefore, a person could swim alongside a leech and never even know it.
Most leeches are predators, and they will swallow other invertebrates. There are, however, more than 700 species of leeches currently recognized in the scientific community, and each has his or her own preference for what they want to eat.
When leeches bite, they release an anticoagulant enzyme, which is why they are used in leech therapy to help treat conditions like frostbite, dead tissue, and bleeding disorders. Not all 700 species can be utilized for medicinal purposes. Instead, there are only a handful of species used for therapy.
Where Do Leeches Live?
Most leeches are found in freshwater environments; however, some species can be found in land and marine areas too. Most of the species of leeches in the United States are in lakes, ponds, and rivers.
There are approximately 100 species that are indigenous to marine environments, and 90 that prefer to live on land. The rest are predominantly found in freshwater areas.
Handling a Bite
Once bitten, there are a few techniques a person can use to remove the leech from the skin safely.
The best way is to wait for the leech to finish eating. The leech will plump up and eventually release its grip from the skin and stop sucking. However, most will not want a leech to remain on their skin and finish the job.
To remove the leech, a person can slide their thumbnail against the skin and in the direction of the leech. Then they can gradually lift the leech from the skin. The parasite will try to keep reattaching to the skin, so it must be done quickly and then the entire leech removed.
Burning used to be a common method, until it was discovered that the leech would break into smaller pieces and make the wound bigger. Also, salt can force a leech to regurgitate inside the bite, which can lead to an infection that is much worse than allowing a leech just to finish the job.
Leeches may bite inside of the mouth, nose, or ear. In this case, it is best to use a solution of hydrogen peroxide and flush the area until the leech lets go. If the parasite starts to expand, it could become lodged in the ear canal. When this happens, a professional will need to remove the parasite using a specialized solution and tweezers to prevent any injury.
Medical Uses of the Leech
Leeches have been used for clinical bloodletting for several thousand years. In fact, the use of leeches in medical therapy dates to 2,500 years ago.
Modern medicine may not use leeches as often as ancient doctors did, but they are still popular in some forms of treatments. They have declined in use since the 1980s, especially with the invention of microsurgeries. Operations like plastic and reconstructive surgery have replaced the needs for leeches in the medical community. However, leeches are used to help treat conditions like venous insufficiency. They are also used to help treat severe wounds, because of the anticoagulant released in their saliva.