How To Avoid Leeches?

In the simplest definition- a Leech is a parasite that sucks blood. If you happen to wander around during the monsoons in the Himalayas or the Western Ghats of India you will encounter them in large numbers. They live off another organism and suck the blood (literally) of their host. Usually it is vertebrates that play hosts to these leeches. During my endeavors in the forests I have seen them attack a slug, a toad, many dogs and most commonly human beings. They usually make their way up from the host’s foot and crawl up till they find an area to suck on. They are capable of attacking any part of the human body including eyes, nose, mouth, vagina, penis, ears and breasts.

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Kodagu District lies in the Western Ghats of southwestern Karnataka. The district’s elevation is roughly 900 meters above the sea level. Most of the land is covered with coffee plantations and the rest is evergreen forest. In my quiet and peaceful hamlet within the coffee plantations, I lied down on a bench in my veranda watching rain and birds. They say an idle mind is a devil’s workshop. The devil had taken over my mind. I impulsively decided to venture out in the forests barefoot. I wanted to feel the clean, moist earth and moss that covered the rocks. I had been warned not to go out without gum-boots for the fear of stepping on snakes, dangerous invertebrates and of course thousands of leeches that would attack me in no time. But often, I do as I like, and went to take a walk barefoot. When I returned I had at least ten leeches clinging on to me in a short span of ten minutes. Most had grown from a mere 2 cms to over 12 cms in length. They had sucked my blood and grown ten times their original circumference. Some had fallen off leaving a profusely bleeding wound while others still hung around my legs, upper arms and neck. 

The point is, leeches are harmless to human beings. But they do send a shiver down the spines of most people who are not accustomed to them. Also, once attacked, each one’s body reacts to it differently causing irritation and inflammation. Most leech wounds would heal in a period of a week. Sometimes the wound leaves a small, itchy scar behind. The tiny dark scars most often go away in the second week. I’d like to say, if you plan to get attacked by leeches like I did or are wandering around in moist forests, you must keep in mind your sugar levels or any other coagulation disorders that you may be suffering from. In no case should a person diagnosed with Diabetes Mellitus (DM) come in contact with leeches. The wounds of people with DM do not heal easily. Having DM may cause unnecessary complications, like infections.

(On a side note- I’d like to point out to those of you who think that DM only hits the elderly, that’s a myth! DM can affect anyone at any age. It is also important that you do not have any suspicions of increased sugar levels. In my case I was sure of not having elevated sugar levels in my blood, thanks to knowledge gained in my 7 years of medical schooling)

For people who are still grossed out by the idea of getting leeches on themselves, and as a general precautionary care- I have got easy ways to stay away from these blood suckers just for you:  

  1. Pluck it out: In an unfortunate incidence of watching a leech crawl up on you or feeling it in an unwanted area on your skin, you could simply pluck it out. That being said, there’s a specific way of doing it. You can’t just flick it off like a mosquito or a fly. With dry hands, tightly grasp the leech in between your fingers and pull it out. Now roll it using the pads of your thumb and index finger and flick it like you would the striker in the famous eastern origin game of Carrom. On most occasions you will have a bleeding wound. Use a bandage or dettol to prevent any infections.
  2. Use Salt: Salt has been popularly used by people who go to leech infested areas. The benefits of common salt against leeches are well known to the indigenous tribes of India. Salt can be sprinkled directly over the leech to kill it almost immediately. I have seen locals carry a special stick. Before getting into the forests they wrap salt in a piece of cloth and tie the ball at the end of a stick, like shown in the picture below. It is super easy to use, carry, store and it lasts long. Just slightly wet the ball at the end of stick and apply to wherever the leech attacks. Interesting isn’t it?

    A special salt stick prepared by the locals in Sikkim to keep the leeches at bay. As seen in the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge; in a study done by Jokem Bam et al (Jul 2015)
    A special salt stick prepared by the locals in Sikkim to keep the leeches at bay. As seen in the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge; in a study done by Jokem Bam et al (Jul 2015)
  3. Rub Vinegar: I learnt this technique from an old experienced man who had lived in the forests for more than 30 years. For him getting leeches off himself and fellow travelers was an everyday task. He tells me that rubbing vinegar all over limbs, thighs and soles of the feet can help prevent leech attacks.
  4. Tobacco: Just like common salt, tobacco has been frequently used among ancient Indian tribes. They rub a mixture of crushed tobacco and water over their limbs to protect themselves from leeches before entering the forests. I remember the old man from the forests mentioning that he uses tobacco for his pet dogs. Dogs often sniff around in the forests. As a result, leeches get inside their nose. An easy way to ease out the troubled dog would be to get him to sniff on a mixture of tobacco and water. A modern variation for trekkers and people like you and me would be to carry a cigarette along. Powdered tobacco from the cigarette can be put directly on the leech to kill it immediately. (Please don’t smoke in the forests)
  5. Eucalyptus Oil: If you have eucalyptus oil handy apply it all over your body. This does not let the leech stick to your body. Although the oil has a very peculiar smell and not everyone would like you to smell like that in the forests.
  6. Iron and lighter trick: When I was 16 I learnt about leeches. I found them very interesting and started scanning the internet. Most people were looking for ways to get them out of their body. This method is indeed a very cruel way of getting rid of this tiny animal. Warm up a small iron piece, like a safety pin or a corkscrew using the lighter flame. Now pierce it straight into the leech’s body. This will burst the animal and it will fall off immediately. Take care not to over heat the iron.
  7. Leech proof socks: This is by far the easiest way to prevent leeches from attacking you. You could buy a pair of professionally made leech socks in any of the outdoor apparel stores (I personally love Decathlon). But if you are not going to be using it often this would sound like a dead investment. In that case you could use any of the thick cotton socks/stockings or soccer socks that are long enough to cover your calf up to your thighs. This will keep you free from leeches on your trek. Thank me later 😉
  8. Alcohol: Alcohol has been proven to be very effective against leeches. Drinking alcohol is the best way to get rid of a leech that has inadvertently entered your mouth- although it is best to prevent such a thing from happening; possibly speak less when you are in the forests 🙂 If a leech has bitten you- putting an alcohol based sanitizer or drinkable alcohol on it should also work.

I was once working on a biodiversity survey in the Western Ghats when a leech entered a friend’s eye. We had to do a quick procedure to remove the leech immediately. A friend had to pull his upper lid up and lower lid down to expose the area as much as possible. Another friend pulled the leech off using her fine grip. The aftermath was not so scary, my friend’s eyes were all normal in about eight hours and his vision was also all right. In such circumstances washing the eye might help but a mild betadine solution will get the creature off. Usually it is advisable to carry betadine eye drops as part of first-aid kit. I read about this only later and confirmed with a few of my ophthalmologist friends.

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Picture by Shrikanth Nayak during his daredevil endeavours in the forests!

Leeches in general are not very deadly, they just leave you bleeding profusely (for a little while before the blood coagulates) and with an unnecessary itch. Sometimes an infection in a person with poor immunity can be triggered but most healthy individuals with protective footwear should be all right in the forests. The most natural way to get rid of them is to let them suck on your blood and fall off naturally, unless they have entered one of your body’s openings!

Don’t forget to tell me if you’ve encountered leeches in your life. I’d love to know how you got rid of them 🙂

PS: I hope you enjoyed reading this. Any help with my travel funds will be highly appreciated

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10 Comments

  1. It might also be of interest to know that although leeches can be unpleasant and sometimes dangerous in a survival situation, they have historically been used beneficially in medicine since ancient times.

    Today, they are occasionally used in some microsurgery and reconstructive surgical procedures where venous congestion can sometimes occur which can cause the blood to clot and the tissues to die. In this instance, leeches can be applied to the affected site in a procedure known as ‘hirudotherapy’. This works by leeches sucking the excess blood which helps to reduce the swelling in the tissues and thus allows fresh oxygenated blood to reach the area affected until normal circulation is restored.

    It is in the leeches saliva that has been known to cure or prevent diseases. Their saliva has over 100 bioactive substances that are very beneficial. One such component is hirudin, which acts as an anticoagulation agent. Calin is another component that also inhibits blood coagulation. A component that dissolves fibrin clots as well as inhibits the formation of thrombus is the destabilase. Leech saliva also contains a Factor Xa inhibitor, and this compound restrains the coagulating effect of the coagulation Factor Xa. It also has hyaluronidase that enhances the viscosity of the interstitial fluid. For vasodilating effect, it has acetylcholine and histamine-like substances as well as carboxypeptidase A inhibitors. These three can increase blood flow by dilating constricted vessels. These are just some of the very useful components in leech saliva.

    Those mentioned above all work together to decrease the viscosity of the blood, making its consistency thinner so as to promote better blood flow. Blood that has a thick consistency makes it prone to clot formation as well as increases the blood pressure of an individual. These clots can travel to different parts of the body and block a vessel, which could then cause a stroke or heart attack. Thick blood poses a risk that the distal extremities, especially the tips of the fingers and toes, will not receive adequate oxygenated blood and the nutrients they need. Therefore, the anticoagulation component in leeches saliva is vital as it naturally makes the blood thinner and works to inhibit platelet coagulation. Patients with cardiovascular disease leeches will promote better blood flow to the region.

  2. Over the years I have found Citronella oil to be the best practical defence against leeches and other biting insects in the forests. All you have to do is rub it over your body and and the smell will keep leeches, ticks, fleas and mosquitoes away. It is a natural product and the pleasant smell is not out of place in the forest. It also masks your human smell and is very helpful in camouflaging oneself while sitting in a hide. The effects will decrease as you sweat so it is advisable to carry a 5/10 ml bottle with you at all times. Directly putting a drop onto a biting leech will make it drop off immediately.

  3. Fantastic write up as usual and Dr. Krishna thank you for the additional information on their medical use. Leech socks is the best bet while forest birding. Enjoyed reading this blog. Good luck for all your future ventures.

  4. Cheapest way is to use ash, what most villagers here in Nepal do. Just spread it on your feet, socks, shoes once in a while (every half hour if you walk on trail and don’t get to wet). Carrying ash is also very useful to get your hands dry fast so you can pick-up the smart leeches which got past the ash barrier 😉 Ask for ash in any village you pass by before you get to the heart of the jungle !

  5. Thank you and just wow for such comprehensive tips on avoiding leeches. I’m in wonderment of these tenacious creatures, but I just couldn’t overcome my fear of leeches whenever they made way to my legs. Because its such a personal phobia to me, I just wanted to jump in on an additional tip that helped me a lot during my last trip to Nepal Annapurna. Perhaps as an additional protection on top of any leech socks one would prepare so to keep them completely out.

    We were haunted by the horde of leeches while trekking for ABC. Unfortunately the monsoon season but fortunately my guide brought along and recommended a ‘barrier’ repellent to us during our trek. It worked very well preventing leeches making its way up like an impenetrable shield! I’ve been looking for it on the internet since I returned. So far only found 2 sources from ebay and Amazon – https://www.ebay.com.au/itm/263810846962

    I’ve done much research to on leech protection. Just thrilled to know that there is a functional specialized product. I am glad I came across your blog to know about how other people deal with leech situations. Hopefully this helps another fellow adventurer.

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