AskDefine | Define leech

Dictionary Definition



1 carnivorous or bloodsucking aquatic or terrestrial worms typically having a sucker at each end [syn: bloodsucker, hirudinean]
2 a follower who hangs around a host (without benefit to the host) in hope of gain or advantage [syn: parasite, sponge, sponger] v : draw blood; "In the old days, doctors routinely bled patients as part of the treatment" [syn: bleed, phlebotomize, phlebotomise]

User Contributed Dictionary



  • , /liːtʃ/, /li:tS/
  • Rhymes with: -iːtʃ


Etymology 1

etyl ang læċe


  1. An aquatic blood-sucking annelid of class Hirudinea, especially Hirudo medicinalis.
  2. A person who derives profit from others, in a parasitic fashion.
  3. A physician.
  4. A healer in Heathenry.
  • sense healer in paganism ''"In ancient times runesters were a specialized class seperate from that of the witch or ordinary spell caster (much as the other specialists such as the leech or healer and the seithkona were different from a witch), and even today many beleive it takes years of traing to become adept at using the runes in spell work."
    Theod Magazine volume 3 number 4 (US Heathen Journal), Scandinavian Craft Lesson 6: Runic Divination, Swain Wodening.
  • sense healer in paganism "Leech?" "Not another doctor".
    The Runes of Elfland, Brian Froud & Ari Berk, Pavillion Books, 2003, ISBN 1 86205 647 1, page 22.]]
  • sense healer in paganism ''"There are many kinds of "Leech" or "healer" as there are healing techinques, some are more powerful than others and some are very specific to certain illnesses and complaints; some use potions and ugents, others crystals and stones, others galdr and some work their healing from within the hidden realms themselves."
    The Book of Seithr, Runic John, Capall Bann Publishing, 2004, ISBN 186163 299 0, page 282.
blood-sucking annelid
Derived terms


  1. To apply a leech medicinally.
  2. To drain the resources of, without giving back.
    Bert leeched hundreds of files from the BBS, but never uploaded anything in return.
Derived terms

Etymology 2

etyl enm, maybe from etyl non lik


  1. In the context of "Nautical}} The vertical edge of a square sail

Extensive Definition

Leeches are annelids comprising the subclass Hirudinea. There are fresh water, terrestrial, and marine leeches. Like the Oligochaeta, they share the presence of a clitellum. Like earthworms, leeches are hermaphrodites.
The European Medical Leech (Hirudo medicinalis) and some congeners as well as some other species have been used for clinical bloodletting for thousands of years. But most leeches do not feed on blood, but hunt small invertebrates, which they devour whole.
Haemophagic leeches attach to their hosts and remain there until they become full, at which point they fall off to digest. Leeches' bodies are composed of 34 segments. They all have an anterior (oral) sucker formed from the first six segments of their body, which is used to connect to a host for feeding, and also release an anesthetic to prevent the host from feeling the leech. They use a combination of mucus and suction (caused by concentric muscles in those six segments) to stay attached and secrete an anti-clotting enzyme into the host's blood stream.
Some species of leech will nurture their young, providing food, transport, and protection, which is unusual behavior in an invertebrate.

Systematics and taxonomy

The leeches are presumed to have evolved from certain Oligochaeta, most of which feed on detritus. However, some species in the Lumbriculidae are predatory and have similar adaptations as found in leeches. Consequently, the systematics and taxonomy of leeches is in need of review. While leeches form a clade, the remaining oligochetes are not their sister taxon but a diverse paraphyletic group containing some lineages that are closely related to leeches, and others that are far more distant.
There is some dispute as to whether Hirudinea should be a class itself, or a subclass of the Clitellata. The resolution mainly depends on the eventual fate of the oligochaetes, which as noted above do not form a natural group as traditionally circumscribed. Another possibility would be to include the leeches in the taxon Oligochaeta, which would then be ranked as a class and contain most of the clitellates. The Branchiobdellida are leechlike clitellates which were formerly included in the Hirudinea but are apparently just rather close relatives.
The more primitive Acanthobdellidea are often included with the leeches, but some authors treat them as a separate clitellate group. True leeches, of the infraclass Euhirudinea, have both anterior and posterior suckers and are divided into two groups:
  • Rhynchobdellida (or Rhynchobdellae): jawless leeches, armed with a muscular straw-like proboscis puncturing organ in a retractable sheath.
  • Arhynchobdellida (or Arhynchobdellae): Leeches which lack a proboscis and which may or may not have jaws armed with teeth.
True leeches, of the subclass Euhirudine, with both anterior and posterior suckers, are divided into two groups
  • Rhynchobdellae: "jawless" leeches, armed with a muscular straw-like proboscis puncturing organ in a retractable sheath. The Rhynchobdellae consist of two families: The Glossiphoniidae (flattened leeches wth a poorly defined anterior sucker) and the Piscicolidae (have cylindrical bodies and a usually well-marked, bell-shaped, anterior sucker). The Glossiphoniidae live in fresh-water habitats; the Pisciolidae are found in sea-water habitats.
  • Arhynchobdellid: Leeches which lack a proboscis and which may or may not have jaws armed with teeth. Arhynchobellids are divided into two orders: Gnathobdellae and Pharyngobdellae
Gnathobdelae: In this order of "jawed" leeches, armed with chips, is found the quintessential leech: the European medical (bloodsucking) leech, Hirudo medicinalis. It has a tripartite-jaw filled with hundreds of tiny sharp teeth. The incision mark left on the skin by the Europan medical leech is an inverted Y inside a circle. Its North American counterpart is Macrobdela decora, a much less efficient medical leech. Within this order, the family Hirudidae is characterized by aquatic leeches and the family Haemadipsidae by terrestrial leeches. In the latter are Haemadipsa sylvestris, the Indian leech and Haemadipsa zeylanica (Yamabiru), the Japanse Mountain or Land leech..
Pharyngobdellae: These so called worm-leeches consist of freshwater or amphibious leeches that have lost the ability to penetrate a host's tissue and suck blood. They are carnivorous and equipped with a relatively large, toothless, mouth to ingest worms or insect larvae, which are swallowed whole.
The Pharyngobdella have six to eight pairs of eyes, as compared with five pairs in Gnathobdelliform leeches, and include three related families. The Erpobdellidae are some species from freshwater habitats.


Leeches are hermaphrodites, meaning they are organisms that have both female and male reproductive organs (ovaries and testes respectively). They reproduce by reciprocal fertilization and sperm transfer occurs during copulation. Similarly to the earth worms, leeches also use a clitellum to hold their eggs and secrete the cocoon. Unlike some other annelids, the leeches do not reproduce sexually.

Nutrition of leeches

Starting from the anterior sucker is the jaw, the Pharynx which extends to the crop, which leads to the Intestinum, where it ends at the posterior sucker. The crop is a type of stomach that works like an expandable storage compartment. The crop allows a leech to store blood up to five times its body size; because of this ability to hold blood without the blood decaying, due to bacteria living inside the crop, medicinal leeches only need to feed two times a year. It was long thought that bacteria in the gut carried on digestion for the leech instead of endogenous enzymes which are very low or absent in the intestine. Relatively recently it has been discovered that all leeches and leech species studied do produce endogenous intestinal exopeptidases which can unlink free terminal-end amino acids, one amino acid monomer at a time, from a gradually unwinding and degrading protein polymer. However, unzipping of the protein can start from either the amino (tail) or carboxyl (head) terminal-end of the protein molecule. It just so happens that the leech exopeptidase (arylamidases), possibly aided by proteases from endosymbiotic bacteria in the intestine, starts from the tail or amino protein, free-end, slowly but progressively removing many hundreds of individual terminal amino acids for resynthesis into proteins that constitute the leech. Since leeches lack endopeptidases, the mechanism of protein digestion can not follow the same sequence as it would in all other animals where exopeptidases act sequentially on peptides produced by the action of endopeptidases. Exopeptidases are especially prominent in the common North American worm-leech Erpobdella punctata. This evolutionary choice of exopeptic digestion in Hirudinea distinguishes these carnivorous clitellates from Oligochaeta. Deficiency of digestive enzymes (except exopeptidases) but more importantly deficiency of vitamins, B complex for example, in leeches is compensated for by enzymes and vitamins produced by endosymbiotic microflora. In Hirudo medicinalis these supplementary factors are produced by an obligatory symbiotic relationship with two bacterial species, Aeromonas veronii and a still uncharacterized Rikenella species. Non-bloodsucking leeches such as Erpobdella punctata are host to three bacterial symbionts, Pseudomonas sp., Aeromonas sp., and Klebsiella sp. (a slime producer). The bacteria are passed from parent to offspring in the cocoon as it is formed.

Leech bites


Though all species of leeches feed on blood, not all species can bite; 90% of them solely feed off decomposing bodies and open wounds of amphibians, reptiles, waterfowl, fish, and other mammals (including, but not limited to, humans). A leech attaches itself when it bites, and it will stay attached until it has had its fill of blood. Due to an anticoagulant (hirudin) that leeches secrete, bites may bleed more than a normal wound after the leech is removed. The effect of the anticoagulant will wear off several hours after the leech is removed and the wound is cleaned.
Leeches normally carry parasites in their digestive tract which cannot survive in humans and do not pose a threat. However, bacteria, viruses, and parasites from previous blood sources can survive within a leech for months, and may be retransmitted to humans. A study found both HIV and hepatitis B in African leeches from Cameroon.


One recommended method of removal is using a fingernail to break the seal of the oral sucker at the anterior end (the smaller, thinner end) of the leech, repeating with the posterior end, then flicking the leech away. As the fingernail is pushed along the person's skin against the leech, the suction of sucker's seal is broken, at which point the leech should detach its jaws.
A common but medically inadvisable technique to remove a leech is to apply a flame, lit cigarette, salt, soap, or caustic chemical such as alcohol, vinegar, lemon juice, insect repellent, heat rub, or certain carbonated drinks. These cause the leech to regurgitate its stomach contents into the wound and quickly detach. The vomit may carry disease and increases the risk of infection.
Simply pulling a leech off by grasping it can also cause regurgitation, and adds risks of further tearing the wound, and leaving parts of the leech's jaw in the wound, which can also increase the risk of infection.
An externally attached leech will detach and fall off on its own when it is satiated on blood, usually in about 20 minutes (but will stay there for as long as it can),.


After removal or detachment, the wound should be cleaned with soap and water, and bandaged. Bleeding may continue for some time, due to the leech's anti-clotting enzyme. Applying pressure can reduce bleeding, although blood loss from a single bite is not dangerous. The wound normally itches as it heals, but should not be scratched as this may complicate healing and introduce other infections. An antihistamine can reduce itching, and applying a cold pack can reduce pain or swelling.
Some people suffer severe allergic or anaphylactic reactions from leech bites, and require urgent medical care. Symptoms include red blotches or an itchy rash over the body, swelling away from the bitten area (especially around the lips or eyes), feeling faint or dizzy, and difficulty breathing.


There is no guaranteed method of preventing leech bites in leech-infested areas. The most reliable method is to cover exposed skin. The effect of insect repellents is disputed, but it is generally accepted that strong (maximum strength or tropical) insect repellents do help prevent bites.
Leech socks can be helpful in preventing bites when the full body will not be at risk of contact with leeches. Leech socks are pulled over the wearer’s trousers to prevent leeches reaching the exposed skin of the legs and attaching there or climbing towards the torso. The socks are generally a light color that also makes it easier to spot leeches climbing up from the feet and looking for skin to attach to.
There are many people who would inject themselves with mobile injections of insects and rose home remedies to help prevent leech bites. Many people have a great deal of faith in these methods, but none of them has been proven to have much or any effect.Some more home remedies include: a dried residue of bath soap, tobacco leaves between the toes, pastes of salt or baking soda, citrus juice, and eucalyptus oil. Diluted Calcium hydroxide may also be used as a repellent, but may be damaging or irritating to the skin. Leeches can be found most on lake floors, under rocks, and in thick weed beds, so do not swim and play there.

See also


Further reading

  • Sawyer, Roy T. 1986. Leech Biology and Behaviour. Vol 1-2. Clarendon Press, Oxford
leech in Guarani: Ysope
leech in Bulgarian: Пиявици
leech in Czech: Pijavice
leech in Danish: Igler
leech in German: Egel
leech in Estonian: Kaanid
leech in Spanish: Hirudinea
leech in French: Hirudinea
leech in Korean: 거머리
leech in Indonesian: Lintah
leech in Icelandic: Iglur
leech in Italian: Hirudinea
leech in Hebrew: עלוקה
leech in Luxembourgish: Bluttsëffer
leech in Lithuanian: Dėlės
leech in Macedonian: Пијавици
leech in Dutch: Bloedzuiger (worm)
leech in Japanese: ヒル (動物)
leech in Norwegian Nynorsk: Igle
leech in Uzbek: Zuluk
leech in Polish: Pijawki
leech in Portuguese: Sanguessuga
leech in Quechua: Yawar ch'unqaq
leech in Russian: Пиявки
leech in Simple English: Leech
leech in Slovak: Pijavice
leech in Slovenian: Pijavke
leech in Serbian: Пијавице
leech in Finnish: Juotikkaat
leech in Swedish: Iglar
leech in Thai: ปลิง
leech in Vietnamese: Đỉa
leech in Turkish: Sülük
leech in Ukrainian: П'явки
leech in Chinese: 蚂蟥

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Chilopoda, Chordata, Doctor of Medicine, Echiuroidea, Ectoprocta, Entoprocta, GP, MD, Monoplacophora, Nemertinea, Phoronidea, adherent, adhesive, allopath, allopathist, attending physician, barnacle, beat, bedbug, blackmailer, bleed, bloodsucker, boltrope, bramble, brier, bulldog, burr, canvas, cement, clew, cloth, coroner, country doctor, cringle, croaker, crowd of sail, cup, deadbeat, decal, decalcomania, doc, doctor, earing, extortionist, family doctor, foot, fore-and-aft sail, freeloader, general practitioner, give a transfusion, glue, gunk, harpy, head, house physician, intern, let blood, limpet, luff, medical attendant, medical examiner, medical man, medical practitioner, medico, molasses, mosquito, mucilage, muslin, parasite, paste, perfuse, phlebotomize, physician, physician in ordinary, plain sail, plaster, predator, press of sail, prickle, profiteer, racketeer, rag, raptor, reduced sail, reef point, reefed sail, remora, resident, resident physician, sail, sawbones, shakedown artist, shark, smell-feast, sponge, sponger, square sail, sticker, syrup, thorn, tick, transfuse, vampire, vulture, wood tick
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