How to prevent leech bite?

Leech
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Some of us might get bitten by leeches when we trek in the Malaysia forest. Leeches don’t kill but they are extremely irritating and disgusting blood suckers. I was first bitten by the forest leech when I was on the way to Poring waterfall. I still hate leech today, so I never stop asking the experienced trekkers how to avoid leech bite. Below are some of the tips that I collect so far.

tiger leech
Above: Tiger leech gets its name from its orange stripes

well-fed brown leech
Above: a fully-fed happy brown leech

6 Ways to Prevent Leech Bite

1. Anti-Leech Socks

Anti-Leech sock is the MOST effective way of preventing leech bite. In the beginning, I thought this sock contained special chemical to drive away the leech, so I spent RM15 to buy it (expensive!!!). Basically it is just an oversized sock that you wear it over your pant as outer layer to cover the opening of your sock and jean. If a leech crawls on your leech sock, then you can spot it and get rid of it.
leech socks

FYI, you can buy anti-leech socks online:

Anti Leech Hiking Socks Free Size Protection for Trekking (Yellow, Extra Long)

Click Here to read “How to use and where to buy anti-leech sock?” if you want to get a pair of leech socks

2. Tobacco Sock

Tobacco can kill leech in minutes. Spend a few dollars to buy some grinded tobacco leaves from the tamu or pasar (local market). Put it in a container and soak it in water (but not too much). Soak the socks in the tobacco water overnight. Leave the socks dry up next day. If you wear the sock, leech may crawl on it but it’ll halt moving after a while due to the poisoning by tobacco.

leech killed by tobacco
Pic: To see if tobacco can kill leech, I sprinkled some tobacco leaves on a leech and it died in less than a minute.

3. Dettol

Heard this from the villagers in Long Pasia. During World War II, people were wondering how the Japanese soldiers bear the leech bites in jungle warfare. Later they learn that the army applied Dettol on their hands, necks and legs. The strong smell kept the leeches away. However, if you go for wildlife watching, I won’t advise you to do this coz your strong smell will scare away all the wildlife hundred feet away.

brown leech sucking blood
Above: the body size of leech can double or even triple after sucking blood. One full meal can last for several months.

4. Lady’s Stockings

I heard from someone that there is a scientist in Danum Valley, who enters the forest frequently for research and seldom got leech bite, though he wears short pant. His secret is to wear the stockings (yes, the pantyhose used by lady).

5. Insecticide Socks

I got this tip from a friend who works for a lumbering company. Just got a pair of long soccer socks, like the one wore by ah pak (old uncles) for jogging. Wear it all the way up to your knee (also cover the opening of your jean). Then spray Baygon brand insecticide on the sock and shoe. FYI, other brands such as Ridsect does not work well. The leech dies almost instantly the moment it touches your shoe or sock.

Baygon insect spray
Pic: Baygon insect (pest) spray, only some supermarkets or stores selling it.

6. Insect Repellent

The easiest way is to buy a bottle of Mosi-Guard (60ml costs RM30.60≈US$9.30, 100ml RM32.75≈US$10) at Guardian (also available in other local pharmacy / drugstore) and spray it on your shoes and socks. It is an insect repellent but its eucalyptus extract can prevent mosquito, as well as leech attack up to 6 hours. Insect repellent with DEET is also effective but it is very hard to find here (probably local restriction on such chemical). You may click the picture below to read the article:

Mosi-Guard insect repellent
Above: Mosi-Guard insect repellent also can repel leeches. You can find it in many pharmacy shops in Sabah.

I spray Mosi-Guard insect repellent on my shoes and anti-leech socks, and I almost got 0 leech bite during jungle trekking in most leech-infested area of Borneo. This repellent only makes you smell terrible to the leeches. A few stubborn leeches still want to get on your shoes but most of them won’t move on.

More Useful Facts

1. Leeches live in humid area. So you can expect more leeches near the river and during the rainy session. The place that has more wildlife tend to have more leeches too. Leeches not only hide on the ground, you also can find them on the leaves and twigs of low shrub. Leech is the most abundant in lowland forest. I encounter leeches in altitude of 800 Meters above sea level, but the number is a lot lesser. However, in drought season, you may not see a single leech in the forest.

crawling tiger leech
Above: tiger leech can attack you from any direction.

2. Some says, if you walk in group, the people at the front have less chance of getting leech bite, most victims are people at the back. Leech is sensitive to body heat and vibration. The first person passing by will “wake” them up, making them active and look for the next comers. Well, based on my experience, everyone has equal chance. In fact, first person get very high chance of leech bite, b’coz he always needs to stop to wait for the slow movers behind, giving leeches more time to crawl onto his body.

3. Leech is blind and likes to bite warmer area (due to thinner skin) such as armpit, skin between toes, butt. That’s why I hate it. It loves sensitive spots. You better wear long sleeve and tuck in your t-shirt. How does it gain access to your butt? For example, fashionable girls who like low cut jean, or you do your no.2 in the forest. Whatever, just don’t bite my balls.

4. Some may tell you that leech can leap / jump to you. It’s just an exaggeration from people who are so afraid of leeches so their imagination go wild. Leeches only can crawl. That’s it. I have walked hundred of Kilometers of forest trail and never see any leech that can jump.

5. Someone even say if you cut a leech into half. Each half will grow into a new leech. It’s bullshit. We tried that before. The leech just turned pale and died.

6. I don’t believe the widely circulated non-sense + scary leech stories such as leeches grow in your brain. But I do believe that if you let leech got into your nose, it will live inside permanently due to free flow of food supply. My mom personally saw this happened to one of her dogs. Avoid washing your face in forest stream.

fully-fed tiger leech
Pic: fully-fed tiger leech sleeping on a twig

I was bitten by leech. What should I do? OH NO, Help!!! I’m going to die!

Don’t panic, don’t scream. It’s just a bug as weak as mosquito. If you are bitten by a leech, do not try to pull it away by force. This would leave permanent scar on your perfect skin. You can apply salt, tobacco, eucalyptus oil, lime fruit juice, tiger balm or medicated oil (e.g. Minyak Kapak or 驱风油) on it and it will shrivel and drop. Or just let it finishes its meal and drop off itself. The last resort is to put your finger on your skin next to its oral sucker, then gently (but firmly) slide your fingernail toward its mouth to detach it from your skin.

leech bites
Above: bleeding caused by leech bites. Look scary, but from their smiles, you know it is no big deal. Just treat it as a leech therapy. You won’t bleed to dead anyway. Leech also doesn’t carry any disease and poison.

Due to anticoagulant to facilitate blood flowing, leech bite will cause your wound to bleed for hour but it will stop eventually. A guide taught me to stick a small pieces of paper on the wound to speed up the clotting and it works! Apply anti-septic cream on the wound to prevent infection and you will be fine. Keep your wound dry and clean. It will itch for a few days before fully healed, but don’t scratch it.

Types of Forest Leeches

There are 2 types of leeches in Borneo rainforest, namely, tiger leech (species: Haemadipsa picta) and brown leech (species: Haemadipsa zeylanica). The Tiger Leech can extend its body more than 6cm long, while Brown (ground) Leech is much more smaller, only about 2 cm. The bite of tiger leech is sharp & painful (like 10 mosquitoes bite you on same spot). If brown leech bites you, you may not feel anything at all, due to the anesthetic chemical in its saliva.


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  • hey cool tips man and awesome blog! really enjoyed it.

  • tradewind

    smokehead, i must say, that the tiger leech is more ‘colourful’ then its dull ground leech. my friend that did jungle trecking in west malaysia said that even spraying bygon on ur shoes will stop the leech from climbing on ur shoes.

  • lhs

    Few years ago two Hong Kong tourists experienced non-stop bleeding nose problem after they visited Sabah. Later the doctor found out there are some leeches camping inside their nose. How do those leeches got there? Guess what, they were tracking in the jungle and decided to wash their face with the “clean” water from the local stream….DON’T DO THAT!!

  • Hean

    there are also leeches in rock pools near waterfalls. these leeches look like flatworm. they don’t ‘crawl’ like the land leeches. Bring salt for outings to the jungle and make a solution and pour it on the leech and they will drop off immediately. Not so easy for west malaysians to buy raw tobacco leaves and to make a solution from cigarettes to soak the socks will costs a fortune. So consider the salt alternative. as for insecticide on your body, the chemicals will harm you more than the leeches unless these chemicals are natural ingredients.

  • Flatworm

    I am making a report .I was searching for website about flatworm this blog. I am interested in your information and appreciate sites like this.

  • Peter

    You mention that it’s better to get them off with salt, etc, than to pull them off. According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leech, this is wrong, and it’s better to scrape them off. I had always heard the same advice that you gave until I found that article. What do you think?

  • MySabah.com

    Hi Peter, scrape off the leech works too, but the inexperienced (panic) people would do this incorrectly, causing more damage to the wound or leaving the mouth piece of the leech on the skin. this is even more tricky with aqua leeches that are many times bigger and have two very powerful suctions.

    as long as you know the right way to scape them off, it’s ok. it is more practical as i also lazy to carry a bottle of salt around.

  • wus

    I found that flaming leeches with a lighter also helps quickly.

  • mysabah

    Hi Wus, oh yes, that works too, but be careful not to burn yourself  🙂

  • George

    When you are in the jungle, you have no salt and it is wet and you do not have any cigarette ash because you are not smoking, all you have to do is spit a little bit of slaver on your hand and drop it on the leech which is stuck on your skin. This is the most effective way of getting rid of it! Believe me, it is a tried and tested very old fashion way ,which was used before I was born! If you see any green leaves call “SIRI” (native women chew them with “PINANG” and chalk and Nutmead nearby, pick one and crush it in your hand and then drop it on the leech. This works just as well.

  • GEORGE

    Sorry my careless typing mistake earlier. It should be “Saliva”

  • Wow George, does saliva really work? I had seen people used lighter, lime, minyak kapak, etc. to remove leech. It’ll be easier to use saliva. I’ll try and see if it works next time. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • George

    Yes, it works very well. Saliva is also a might antiseptic as a temporary measure until one can get hold the real stuff or to hospital. I was born in Pitas and moved to Keningau when I was 10 years old. I was not afraid of leeches then but I may now as I have seen them since 1972! Keep up your good work. At last my birth place is on the net! God bless.

  • Cool! Next time I will lick off the leech, haha..

    Btw, do you know any nice destinations in Pitas?

  • George

    Haha, I don’t miss the leeches but I do miss the stuffed tofu shown in some of photos!

  • George

    Sorry Murphy, if you asked me in 1964, I could be your guide to tour Pitas then. I left Pitas in 1965. When the rubber plantation gave way to Palm Oil in 1972, the whole of Pitas and its surrounding area of natural beauty were destroyed! My father sold our farm and retired to Tampuruli near Tauran four ten years and then moved further north to Keningau (a cooler place) till his final year in 1992. I am not sure what the place is like now!

  • I used to use a small scissor to get get rid of the leech from my boot.Try camphor soap ( Pagoda brand) – sorry I.m not selling soap.But it works wonderful.It,s a soap, it does not irritate your skin.Try it and let me know..he..he.Just RM 1 satu ketol je..

  • Vasquez

    Sodium bicarbonate and garlic?

  • Very interesting Vasquez, I don’t know leech also hates garlic. 😀

  • Ben

    I tried 1 drop of Label 5 (40% alcohol) and the leech died instantly.

  • That’s really a cool tip Ben, thanks! I hope I won’t finish drinking it before going into forest :-p

  • Calvin kuek

    My dad said if it enters your buthole you will die.he normally enters the forest so he has experience .(not kidding)

  • Hi Calvin, I haven’t heard any fatal case like this so far, and no tour guide and forest ranger even say that too. It’ll be great if your father could tell us more.

  • hunter

    Can leeches crawl in your butt

  • Leech will look for the warm and most accessible area to start the feast. It won’t try to get “inside” our hole.

  • howard

    Can leaches transmit AIDs or Zika?

  • No. As far as I know, leech doesn’t transmit any disease.

  • Crystal

    Hi Murphy, wonderful post! Very insightful, I’ve never thought something like the pantyhose or tobacco would work against leeches 😀

    Btw, spraying insecticide or repellent that contains DEET isn’t a good idea as these will contaminate the water and soil, also they’re poisonous to the local fauna, not to mention, us humans too. 🙂

  • Hi Crystal, I totally agree with you that DEET is harmful to the environment. Fortunately such repellent isn’t readily available in Sabah.