The usual dark brown leeches such as the horse leech and even gray colored leeches such as the ribbon leech are quite easy to spot, so you typically have ample time to make plans to avoid them. But when it comes to almost flesh colored tiger leech, sometimes you will not find out if one has attached itself to your skin until its too late.
In all, there are around 500 species of leeches living on the planet today, but only 63 can be found in North America and 35 in Ontario. Leeches such as ribbon leeches (gray to brown in color) are typically used for bait. They can be found in ponds and marshes and they typically feed at night. The horse leech, which is greenish to dark brown, is a predator and scavenger feeder. This is also used for bait. The medicine leech is black with reddish orange brown spots on its back. And as the name suggests, this leech is used for medicinal purposes in some countries.
The tiger leech has a thinnish body, and it can be brightly colored (orangish) or pale. This means, the tiger leech can blend with many different skin types. Some live on land (around sand) and others live in lakes and ponds. Most leeches, however, live in lakes, rivers, and ponds, so it is possible to come in contact with any number of leeches. Fortunately, leeches do not carry parasites of any known diseases. They do, however, cause a number of other unpleasant reactions.
Leeches attach themselves to a host (humans are preferred) and they suck blood from the body. This makes leeches sanguivorous, meaning, they feed on blood and they can ingest more than several times their own body weight in blood in one single “meal.” While leeches prefer human blood, they have no problems settling for fish blood, frog, turtle, and bird blood. Leeches are also cannibals, Yes, leeches will even feed on leeches.
While leeches are not known to transmit disease, they can cause irritation and other allergic reactions in humans as well as an infection or blood poisoning. In addition, a leech bite can bleed for hours if not treated. To treat a leech “bite” promptly, you must remove the leech by pushing the leech off the skin from the skinny end. Push the leech sideways to prevent the leech from discharging the contents of its gut into the bite. This can cause an infection and possible blood poisoning. Again, this is the best technique for removing leeches. Techniques such as ripping the leech off without thinking, heating it or pouring salt over it can be dangerous.
To repel leech bites, rub soap lather on exposed areas of the skin and let it dry. You may also apply eucalyptus oil, tropical strength insect repellent, or lemon juice to the skin and even the clothing. Leech socks are also extremely effective in protecting the skin from leeches. Leech socks are tightly woven, light-colored “socks” that fit over outer garments.
After you have safely removed the leech, you should wash the wound with soap and water and apply a cold pack if pain or swelling is present. Keep the wound clean until it heals. If you follow these steps, and you have no leech allergies and are in good health, you should have no problems healing. If you experience swelling around the lips and eyes, red blotches on the skin, an itchy rash, infection, or ulcer, go to the hospital immediately.
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