Relentless rainfall has sparked a leech invasion in New South Wales, with no reprieve in sight for already damp dwellings.
The blood-sucking creatures have been attracted into suburban areas, where higher than normal rainfall and humidity are providing suitable conditions to feed.
Linda Campbell has been batting off leeches in her Winmalee home in the Blue Mountains for months.
“I’ve lived in this house for seven years, [and] I have never found leeches inside before now,” she said.
“I don’t have a dog. My two cats aren’t allowed outside, so they haven’t hitched a ride on a pet.”
Campbell reckons she has found more than half a dozen leeches on her property since December – bopping up on her body, on the settee, secreted in rugs and on walls.
The worst encounter was when Campbell was sitting on the couch at night, barefoot. She was just about to go to bed when she noticed a leech had been sucking blood out of her foot.
Once they bite into their prey, leeches release anaesthetics into the body which keep humans from feeling pain.
A type of segmented worm, they can vary considerably in size between meals, able to ingest several times their bodyweight in one sitting while feeding on humans and other animals.
David Bock, the search and discover manager at the Australian Museum, said most leeches live in water but Australia was “really lucky” to have a land leech that loves moist, wet conditions.
“With the ongoing wetness, they’re spreading because the conditions are wonderful, leeches love exploring and everywhere is wet and good to explore,” Bock said.
“If this was our typical weather pattern, we’d find them around all the time, but once it starts to dry up they’ll retreat to where it stays moist.”
In bad news for NSW, the Bureau of Meteorology has forecast the big wet hitting the eastern coast could last throughout winter, while La Nina may persist into a third year.
That means more extreme rainfall and flooding in already hard-hit parts of south-eastern Queensland, northern NSW and saturated Sydney. And more leeches.
Dr Mark Rolfe recently encountered leeches while visiting his mother in the Central Coast suburb Erina.
“It’s not the location for wet bush with which I associate leeches from childhood,” he said.
Rolfe was out by the clothes line when he felt something in his slip-on shoe, a “little bugger” about an inch long and wriggling about.
“When I mentioned this to [my mother’s] neighbour, he recounted he spent $2,000 at the vet on the cat that had been bitten,” Rolfe said.
The suburban sprawl has been blamed for the presence of leeches in suburbs across NSW.
Bock said pets and humans can also bring them home from bushwalks.
“They’ll grab a foot or a leg and then inch up your body until they find flesh,” he said.
“Some can hang on for an hour or two, but what people notice is once they’ve dropped off, your blood keeps flowing and it’ll make quite a mess.”
Lexi Kentman was driving to Balmoral recently and felt a substance running down her leg. Mystified, she pulled up her jeans and found a “big fat leech”.
“I was driving and told my husband to remove it immediately or I would crash the car,” she said.
Later, more leeches started appearing in their home on Sydney’s upper north shore – one on the kitchen floor, more in the bathroom, another on her daughter’s ceiling and then – horrifically – in the worm farm.
“They got doused with salt,” Kentman said. “There is now a bag of salt sitting in our bathroom. Cute styling.”
Kentman took to Instagram, posting tea tree oil was a good way to repel leeches. She now describes herself as a “leech influencer”.
Other common, not scientifically tested repellents include bath soap, eucalyptus oil, insect repellent and lemon juice.
Luckily, while blood loss may appear large, it is not significant from a medical perspective.
It would take more than 100 leeches feeding at once to kill a human, as they only take between five and 15mm of blood in one session.
“The bite can be itchy, yucky, unpleasant, but there doesn’t seem to be a negative effect like diseases from mosquitoes or ticks,” Bock said.
“Leeches are still used in medicine today. If someone’s reattaching a severed finger they’ll still use leeches around both ends.”
As for the best method to rid a leech from your body? Just flick it off. Or, if you’re a thrill seeker, wait until it’s full and let it drop off your body naturally.