Leeches, maggots & Co. for medical treatment

Maggots, worms, and leeches aren’t exactly pets to keep. However, they are becoming increasingly popular in medicine. As a natural cleansing squad, they are supposed to clean wounds, clean up the intestines and activate the immune system.

Lots of disgust, few side effects

Treatment practices of our ancestors and effective therapy methods in modern medicine: fly maggots in wounds, leeches on the skin for venous disorders and rheumatic complaints, worm eggs to drink for chronic intestinal diseases – what  sounds unappetizing  is in many cases a resounding success. Above all, it is important to overcome the disgust of patients and medical staff – otherwise such treatments usually have  few side effects.

fly maggots

Treatment with maggots has been known for a long time, but has been   supplanted by antibiotics since the 1940s. It is only in recent years that the little animals have been crawling more frequently on wounds again. They even get rid of bacteria that are not sensitive to antibiotics, and they do so very gently.

Only the dead, infected tissue is eaten,  living cells are not touched.  This is an advantage over the usual method using a scalpel, in which the surgeon has no choice but to also remove healthy tissue from the edges of the wound.

The more specific working method of the small animals is also known as  biosurgery  . Fly maggots are used in particular for chronic, poorly healing wounds, for example in  diabetic feet  or leg ulcers.  But they can also help with acute  wound infections .

Doctors report some spectacular successes. The crawling creatures have already saved patients with aggressive infections that could not be stopped by antibiotics from having their limbs amputated.

Mode of action of fly maggots

The maggots of the blowfly species Lucilia sericata have a whole arsenal of modes of action: On the one hand, they attack the infectious agents directly. They change the acidic environment in the wound, in which the pathogens feel particularly comfortable, and they secrete a digestive secretion that   acts like a local antibiotic .

On the other hand, the maggots also have a positive effect on the wound itself. They release certain substances that   activate the wound  ‘s metabolism and stimulate healing  . This effect is probably intensified by the animals’ fine body hairs, which mechanically stimulate the wound surface when they move.

The maggots also secrete substances that liquefy the dead tissue. So they can destroy this and the bacteria. With this feast, a maggot grows to a length of more than one centimeter within a few days – three to seven times its original size.

Treatment with fly maggots

The sterile maggots are applied directly to the wound, i.e. “free-running” or sealed in gauze bags. The latter are opaque and the size of tea bags. You spare patients and staff the sight of five to ten crawling creatures per cm 2  wound surface. The edges of the wound are completely sealed and the bandage is changed after two to five days.

The treatment usually does not hurt, but only tingles and pinches a little; however, an unpleasant odor may develop. If the patients are sure that there is no danger of the little animals fleeing their “workplace”, they can usually get used to the therapy.


Leeches have been used therapeutically for thousands of years, but clinical studies are still pending. Leeches contain anti-inflammatory, anticoagulant and vasodilating substances. They are therefore used in diseases that are caused by  circulatory disorders  or are associated with them. These include, for example,  varicose veins , thrombosis, phlebitis and  high blood pressure . There are also reports of successful treatment of muscle and bone complaints, for example spinal diseases and arthrosis.

A leech sucks about three to six milliliters of blood; another 20 to 30 milliliters are lost through postoperative bleeding. Their bite is  briefly painful,  similar to a mosquito bite. The stuffed animal falls off by itself after 10 to 40 minutes. It is not uncommon for side effects to be caused by the leech secretion: slight local reactions such as  redness, swelling  and  itching  as well as  circulatory weakness .


In Germany, an estimated 300,000 people suffer from one of the  inflammatory bowel diseases  Crohn’s disease  and  ulcerative colitis . These  autoimmune diseases  are chronic, the patients have constant or recurring intestinal problems that cannot always be cured with medication or surgery.

A cocktail  of pork whipworm eggs  now promises a gentle alternative. This water-like liquid is drunk about twice a month. The worm eggs it contains are supposed to hatch the  parasites in the intestine  , which die after a short time and are excreted. The idea behind this is that it  stimulates the immune system  .

The theory sounds plausible, the side effects are minimal. However, there are currently not enough studies to scientifically substantiate the effect. Other researchers are investigating the extent to which worm infections can reduce allergic diseases such as  asthma  and hay fever. However, further research is currently required to determine whether there will be a corresponding vaccine made from worm eggs in a few years’ time.

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