Leeches: Why do we suffer through the “Yuck Factor”?


WARNING: If you are squeamish around slimy, blood-sucking worms, you may not want to read further!

Have you ever been swimming in a pond with leeches? I have…and it made me a little nervous. As refreshing as it was on a hot summer day, I did NOT want an uninvited guest to tag along on my body when I got out. I braved it…and was lucky. But my friend, Richard, was not so lucky! A leech attached itself on his leg and we had to pull him off. (There was much screaming and hollering!)

Leeches are a part of the worm family. There are nearly 700 types of leeches, usually living in fresh-water environments, but also sometimes on land or in marine environments. They have suckers at either end of their body, which are used to attach to another animal and feed off the blood.

That part is pretty disgusting, at least to me. But there is a good part about leeches, too. Leeches have been used in the world of medicine for thousands of years and became very popular in this country in the 1700s and 1800s. Doctors thought leeches restored the balance of fluids in the body. That’s not really true. And it certainly didn’t help George Washington when he became deathly ill with a sore throat. Doctors removed several pints of blood using leeches…but could not save his life.

But leeches do have powerful benefits that are being recognized today. They have a special chemical that helps widen veins and improve blood circulation. Researchers study their saliva to learn more about how it helps prevent blood clots. Leeches are often used in hospitals today when a patient has reconstructive surgery to help healing.

Do you want to meet a leech? Come join us at the DiMenna Children’s History Museum Family Benefit on Saturday where educators will be happy to make the introduction…through glass, of course!


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