Jeremy Joslin, an emergency physician, was in charge of an ultramarathon in Cambodia’s wilderness a few years ago. Many of the participants wanted to cool off after the race, and they saw an attractive stream nearby.
The cries began after a few minutes, according to Joslin, who is located at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. People began rushing back to camp, along with the numerous leeches that had latched themselves to their bodies. The following several days were spent changing bandages and dealing with minor bleeding.
The majority of leech experiences are similar. Although discovering one of these vicious worms on your body might be distressing, it is rarely a medical emergency.
Usually. Leech bites can occasionally result in serious and horrific consequences. Here’s what may happen if one of these suckers gets into touch with you, as well as what you can do about it.
Leeches aren’t all bloodsuckers.
There are a variety of leech species that do not feed on human blood. Those who eat people, on the other hand, can be found both in the sea and on land. Land leeches are abundant in Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, the Indian subcontinent, and South America, whereas aquatic leeches are found all over the world.
Leeches may detect their prey in a variety of ways. Shadows and disturbances in the water, as well as body heat and secretions such as oil and perspiration, attract them. According to Sebastian Kvist, associate curator of invertebrates at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, terrestrial leeches, which typically hang on foliage while waiting for a meal, respond to the carbon dioxide you exhale as well.
In an email, Kvist added, “Anyone who has conducted fieldwork in the tropics of Southeast Asia can speak to the ferocity of these leeches.” “They have to be able to eat anything that comes across their path, and they are aggressive hunters.”
Leeches have two suckers, one of which is attached to their three-jawed mouths. When a leech latches onto you, it uses anticoagulants in its saliva to keep your blood flowing. During a single meal, some common aquatic leeches can consume over 10 times their body weight in blood, filling their stomachs for a year or more.
There are a few instances where leeches are connected to your body because they were placed there by your doctor. Bloodletting using the notorious medical leech (Hirudo medicinalis) was formerly a common practice. In a study on the history and dangers of leech attachment, Joslin and his colleagues stated on October 10 in the journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine that “Europeans were so fascinated with the use of therapeutic leeches in the 17th and 18th centuries that they exhausted the supply.”
There are just a few diseases for which bloodletting is still regarded as a viable therapeutic option today. However, by increasing blood flow in damaged veins, leeches have established a reputation for themselves in reconstructive surgery.
Is it true that leeches are dangerous?
That depends on the number of leeches eating on you, their location, and how much you’ve irritated them.
Leeches generally feed for 20 to 30 minutes before leaving your body. Bleeding from a leech bite usually lasts 10 hours, although it can last for days. “It may be inconvenient up to medically severe,” Joslin explains.
If you are healthy and have a single leech bite, you will most likely only experience minor bleeding. However, if you are attacked by a large number of leeches at the same time, the effects might be more catastrophic. Anemia and severe bleeding from 130 leech bites landed a man in the emergency department in Turkey. The anticoagulants in the leeches’ saliva had severely harmed his blood’s capacity to clot, putting his life in jeopardy.
The disease can also be transferred by leeches. “Unlike humans, leeches do not have an immune system that sterilizes their stomach contents,” Joslin explains. “If a leech carries bacteria in its gut and clings to you, any regurgitation of blood from their gut over your wound might spread infection.”
If you try to remove a leech by squeezing, burning, or other harsh methods, it may vomit up germ-filled blood. Medicinal leeches can spread diseases like syphilis and erysipelas, a bacterial skin illness.
“You have no idea what other animal or human that leech has connected to in the past and may have picked up some germs, virus, or parasites from,” Joslin adds.
In Africa, scientists discovered HIV and hepatitis B viruses in wild leeches. “There was no verified incidence of transmission,” Joslin adds, “but if they have these viruses in their stomach, it stands to reason that they may be transmitted.”
These bloodsuckers also have another sinister tendency. The majority of the time, leeches will attach themselves to your exposed flesh. A leech may, however, penetrate through one of the body’s orifices and attach inside on rare occasions. Leeches have infested people’s eyes, ears, nostrils, throats, urethras, bladders, rectums, vaginal openings, and stomachs.
This, according to Kvist, is not by chance. When a leech enters a person’s body, it is generally a member of the Praobdellidae family. Leeches that feed via mucous membranes are known to exist. To put it another way, they want to be inside of you. “The rest of the skin is considerably less enticing to them,” Kvist adds, “although if they were starving, they would eat on your leg.”
A leech may live for days or weeks within your body. Depending on where it’s ended up, there are a few signs that a leech is within you. One example is unusual bleeding from the orifice in the issue. According to Joslin and his colleagues, leeches can also induce fever, vomiting, difficulty urinating, and “a feeling of alien body movement.” If the leech is lodged in your neck, it may cause trouble breathing, hoarseness, or changes in your voice.
“Even one leech may pose a fairly huge problem if it gets into a bodily cavity or on your eyeball or something like that,” Joslin adds.
How to safely remove a leech
If you notice a leech clinging to your body, make sure there aren’t any more around.
To avoid regurgitation, you should carefully remove the leech. To break the mouthpiece’s suction, Joslin advises using your fingernail, the edge of a knife, or a credit card. If the leech is in your mouth or esophagus and you can’t reach it, gargle with seawater. “Saltwater can irritate the leech sufficiently to force it to detach itself without being too toxic to cause regurgitation,” Joslin explains.
Then, using soap and water, cleanse the area and bandage it. Antibiotics are unlikely to be required to prevent infection, according to Joslin.
Leech bites, on the other hand, can be fatal in extremely rare circumstances. A person might bleed to death or die from a blood illness if they are bitten by a large number of leeches, according to Joslin. On their march into Egypt in 1799, troops in Napoleon’s army inadvertently drank water contaminated with leeches. As the swollen leeches clogged their airways, some of these guys died of suffocation.
What’s the greatest technique to stay away from leeches?
Leeches, particularly those that dwell on land, are difficult to keep away. “They quickly sneak into your clothing, and keeping them from adhering to your skin is difficult,” Kvist adds.
Wear long, tucked-in clothes if you’re trekking through the leech-infested territory. Insect repellents containing the chemicals DEET or DEPA may also deter leeches, according to some data.
Unfortunately, some of the most appealing locations for swimming and outdoor exploration are also ideal leech habitats. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t put food in a lake or pond again.
“Knowing how to remove them, what to look out for, and how to treat them when they do appear is far superior to merely avoiding locations where leeches could live,” Joslin adds.