How to remove a leech

Getting a leech while bushwalking is no fun but knowing how to remove one safely and effectively is essential.

Leech basics

  • Leeches have suckers on both ends of their bodies, but just one end has a mouth. The mouths of leeches have saw-like jaws which they use to pierce the skin and attach themselves so they can suck blood.
  • They have an anticoagulant in their saliva which stops blood from clotting and makes it easier for them to continue sucking. The first sign of a leech bite may be blood due to this anticoagulant.
  • Leech bites are not dangerous or painful, just annoying. Unlike some other creatures that bite, leeches don’t cause stinging, carry diseases or leave a poisonous stinger in the wound.
  • The bite doesn’t hurt since leeches release an anaesthetic when they bite, but due to the anticoagulant, the wounds bleed a fair bit. However, if you pull a leech off the wrong way, their mouth can stick under your skin and leave a slowly-healing lump.

Protecting yourself from leeches

  • The easiest way to remove a leech from your body is to prevent one from attaching itself to you in the first place. There are two parts to protecting yourself from leeches: covering up and using insect repellent.
  • When dealing with land-based leeches, covering your skin provides good protection against leeches. You can even buy leech socks, made from tightly woven fabric to prevent leeches from getting through and attaching themselves.
  • Or, you can make your own by spraying DEET (diethyltoluamide) on your socks. The same goes with wearing long pants and shirts with long sleeves.
  • If you’re spending time in leech-infested water, it’s much harder to prevent leech bites. The best way is just to avoid being in water with leeches.

Removing a leech

The easiest way to remove a leech is to wait until it’s had its fill, as it will drop off on its own when done feeding. If you don’t want to wait the 20 minutes or so, here’s how to safely pull a leech off.

  1. Find its mouth which is at the smaller, thinner end of its body.
  2. Place your finger on the skin adjacent to the mouth.
  3. Slowly slide your fingernail towards the mouth and push it sideways. This pushes the mouth off instead of pulling it, reducing damage to your skin.
  4. Remove the sucker on the other end of the leech.
  5. Flick the leech away before it can try to reattach itself.

Never just blindly try to pull the leech off, as doing so can leave their sucking apparatus (or mouth) attached.

Post-removal care

Although leeches don’t generally carry diseases, it’s always a good idea to properly clean the wound.

  1. Get a clean towel or piece of cotton wool and clean off the blood so you can identity the bite site.
  2. Wash and dry the wound.
  3. Clean the bite area using antibacterial wipes, alcohol pads, iodine or hydrogen peroxide.
  4. Put a bandage over the wound.