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Adirondack Leeches

We wrote about ticks earlier this spring, so it’s only fair that we give equal billing to the ubiquitous, high-summer parasite – the leech.


We’ve been doing a lot of swimming lately. It’s hot and humid and often the only relief is a cool, refreshing dip in one of the many lakes and swimming holes that we’re lucky to have nearby. Unfortunately, these gorgeous little swimming holes are more often than not home to a few blood-sucking leeches.

It’s a no-win situation. Go hiking – get a tick. Go swimming – come home with a leech. You can’t escape the North Country without getting your blood sucked. There’s a new, award-winning HBO series in there somewhere.

Anyway. Our first encounter with leeches came only a week or so ago. We were swimming at a popular spot in the river near our house when a little boy swimming next to us discovered that he was hosting a leech on the bottom of his foot. To his credit, he remained pretty calm while he quickly swam over to his mom for help in removing it. “This is the third one of the season!” He proclaimed, incredulous.

Dave and I shared a momentary look of horror as we watched his mother calmly pluck the leech from her son. And then we watched as the boy happily jumped back in the water as if it had never happened. Though we didn’t immediately scramble out of the water to safety, I will admit to feeling a bit on edge during the rest of our swim.

Only a couple of days later we found ourselves at yet another local swimming hole after a hot afternoon of climbing with a friend. The water was clear and cold. And we were having a great time leaping from a boulder into the deep pool.

Eventually I climbed out of the water to hang out on the warm rocks for a bit. Not two seconds later, Dave glanced down towards my feet and jokingly said, “Haha – you’ve got a leech!” I looked down to see what he was talking about and sure enough there was something stuck to the top of my foot. It was about an inch long and looked like a small, dark leaf. Huh. We all stared at my foot. Maybe it really is a leech! We went back and forth. A leaf? A leech? A closer look revealed that it was in fact a leech.

“Well, if it is a leech,” I calmly said, “would someone mind getting it off of me?” For some reason, I was incapable of helping myself.

Dave – the brave and generous man that he is – let our friend do the honors. So he picked up what we all assumed to be the tail end of the leech and gently tugged. It elegantly stretched to double its size, but stubbornly remained attached to my foot. Ew. So my friend reached down and sort of flicked at its head, and sure enough the leech released its hold and came clean off.

I didn’t feel a thing and the little sucker didn’t so much as leave a mark. No blood, nothing.

Well, that was easy. We all kind of shrugged and went on our way.

So the moral of the story is this: as unnerving as the thought of it is, the experience of actually getting a leech is no big deal. At least it wasn’t for me.

But if you find yourself in a similar situation – leech firmly attached to one of your body parts – it will probably help to know the proper way to remove it.

DO NOT do the following:
– Apply an open flame, lit cigarette, or match to the leech.
– Use salt, soap, or any other chemical to get it to detach.

Although these methods will quickly cause the leech to release its hold, it will also cause it to VOMIT ITS STOMACH CONTENTS INTO THE WOUND. Do you need me to say that again? Leech vomit. Open wound. Though leeches don’t generally transmit diseases (like ticks), leech vomit may cause infection. Plus – it’s leech vomit. Just say no.

Instead, what you should do is this:
– Use your fingernail or another flat object on the anterior end of the leech (the smaller, skinnier end) to break the seal of its sucker. Press along your skin against the leech and it will readily release its jaws.
– Do the same thing on the posterior end of the leech.
– Flick the leech as far away from you as you possibly can.

If the leech has been there for a while, there will be blood. Clean up the wound with soap and water and slap on a Bandaid. It will probably bleed more than you expect, since leeches release an anti-coagulant when they bite. Smart little suckers. It’s also fine to let the leech have its meal and drop off on its own. In fact, I’m sure it would be very appreciative.

Either way, once it’s gone take a lesson from that brave little boy and jump back in the water. There’s no reason to let a few slimy little leeches keep you from enjoying a refreshing swim during the heat of the summer.


  1. Joann

    25 years, lots-o swimming, no leeches so I had forgotten about the nasty creatures….and you had to remind me?!!!

    • Jessica

      Sorry! I didn’t think about them at all last year. But we’ve known three people in the last week who have had one. Maybe they’ll be like ticks – we found 4 or 5 within a couple of weeks this spring and then haven’t seen a single one since…

      • Dave

        Do they make a “Frontline” for leeches?

        • Jessica

          Yes, it’s called a wet suit.

          • Joann

            Complete with hoodie, gloves, and socks!

  2. Donn

    In Northern Oz a number of years ago, I encountered the only leeches that I ever have. I mean, at least on me. Problem was: there were a lot of them. No. A LOT. Even though the hike was in rainforest, we were clothed from the neck down; it was rainy season, and a chilly rain to boot. They weren’t just on skin; they were on clothes too. INSIDE my high gaiters was a small village’s worth. I got an early clue what to expect when, wondering why one was on my hand, I stopped – and saw several racing, no, racing up my trekking poles, like inchworms on speed.

    The ol’ forefinger/thumb ‘flick’ – you know, the one you used ‘kicking’ a paper football through your opponent’s finger-uprights – is what you want to use. The method related here sounds way too deliberate to get between fifty and one hundred leeches – I lost count, not that I actually was counting – off of you and yours in anything less than the one hour it took each of us, ‘flicking.’

    What? You think every ‘flick’ is successful? When one is, though, it does double duty, dislodging the little vampire and getting it well away from you.

    Coming up the last week of September, looking for fall color. Sounds like the farther north that week, the better!

    From MD

    P.S. I found one, back at the hotel, underneath my big toe. Which had been underneath boots, gaiters, and two pairs of socks. Dedication, for sure.

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