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.
Above: Tiger leech gets its name from its orange stripes
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.
FYI, you can buy anti-leech socks online:
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.
Pic: To see if tobacco can kill leech, I sprinkled some tobacco leaves on a leech and it died in less than a minute.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
How to use and where to buy an anti-leech sock?