Sweet Itch Prevention and Treatment

a horse suffering from sweet itch

Come the spring, you may find your horse can’t resist a good scratch, which, when infrequent, is no cause for concern. Sweet Itch, however, causes prolonged periods of scratching or rubbing that produce sores and open wounds. Treating Sweet Itch may seem like a never-ending battle, but tackling the condition early by commencing a suitable treatment programme is key to minimising the onset of this debilitating health concern for horses.

Here we take a look at the cause, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of Sweet Itch to help you keep your horse as comfortable and sweet-itch-free as the fly season draws closer!

Causes of Sweet Itch

Sweet Itch is the most common allergic skin disease in horses, affecting around 5% of the UK’s population. Sweet Itch is caused by hypersensitivity to the saliva of insects, specifically of the Culicoides spp. type, which is more commonly known as mosquitos or midges. The condition can be confused with other causes of skin irritation, such as mite and louse infestations. However, it typically affects horses over the age of 4-years, showing the progressive development of the condition’s severity with age. It also only becomes apparent from late spring to late autumn, the colder weather resulting in absence of the symptoms.

Symptoms of Sweet Itch

Symptoms of Sweet Itch include pruritus, the severe itching of the skin. Signs to look out for include;

  • Mild to severe rubbing of areas such as the back, mane and tail.
  • Broken hairs on the mane and tail.
  • Hair loss.
  • Lumpy or scaly skin, which may be inflamed or hot to touch.
  • Areas of thickened skin.
  • Areas of sore or broken skin, which tend to bleed.

Severe damage to the skin could not only have long-term consequences, such as permanent loss of hair, damage to pigmentation, or permanently thickened skin, it may result in further complications. Open wounds predispose your horse to further infection and discomfort. Additionally, the discomfort caused by Sweet Itch may cause increased restlessness, resulting in weight loss. Therefore, it is important for owners to identify and control the problem appropriately for the horse’s overall health and well-being.

A horse with sweet itch
Sweet Itch Scabs Summer 2018

Diagnosis of Sweet Itch

Treatment of Sweet Itch should follow a confirmed diagnosis. Firstly, owners should identify the condition’s characteristics, being seasonal in presentation, with the condition recurring year after year. Elimination of any other cause of skin irritation should also be carried out, assessing the horse for mites and lice when grooming is one example of this. Also, consider that skin irritation could be caused by the application of new products.

Diagnosis can then be confirmed through veterinary examination, where they will complete an intradermal skin test. An intradermal test comprises of injecting a small amount of the Sweet Itch cause, Cuiloides spp., within the layers of the skin to assess whether the horse is reactive.

Does sweet itch get worse?

Horses often start with a mild version of sweet itch at first, and as they grow older, it can get worse. The condition causes extreme discomfort and can have devastating effects on the horse’s well-being year on year. The immune response to sweet itch will present itself season after season. Should your horse have suffered from sweet itch the year before, you should prepare the skin plenty in advance before the biting insect season approaches. You can also feed supplements year-round to help strengthen the skin’s structure.

How do you get rid of sweet itch?

Treating Sweet Itch to rid your horse of the problem should start by combating the cause of the symptoms, as well as offering relief from the intense itching sensation your horse is experiencing. There are a variety of products available, however, seeking professional help and treatment from your vet is advisable prior to application.


Your vet may prescribe steroids, as they are often successfully used to eliminate sweet itch irritation, which insects cause. Steroids function as an anti-inflammatory, reducing swelling and inflammation associated with irritation and, therefore, the itching sensation. It is advised the steroids are taken in the morning to produce the most effective results. They should only be taken during the season associated with Sweet Itch and are not suitable for horses affected by laminitis due to prolonged use being associated with the development of this condition.

a horse with severe sweet itch
Severe Sweet Itch -image retrieved from http://www.sweet-itch.org/sweet_itch_pictures.htm

Sweet Itch Cream

Soothing creams, shampoos, solutions, and sprays can also work to great effect on sweet itch. Use of shampoos, such as Botanica’s Dilute Cleansing Wash, can provide instant relief from the itching sensation and is safe to use on broken skin and insect bites, which horses affected by Sweet Itch are prone to. Shampooing the skin will also cleanse the hair of any potential allergens causing the irritation. Creams and solutions, such as the Botanica Anti-itch cream can provide an extra layer of protection, reducing damage caused to skin from excessive rubbing through moisturisation and soothing the area. To read our full review on treatment products from Botanica, visit REVIEW Botanica, a Must for Sweet Itch Sufferers.

There is a variety of other Sweet Itch Products for Your Horse’s Protection that when combined, can create an effective barrier to the problem starting, or getting worse.

Prevention of Sweet Itch

Prevention of Sweet Itch development is more effective than treatment, fact. Early treatment using products from the Botanica range (application should ideally start mid-February) builds a barrier helping prevent the onset of the condition.

Although it may seem impossible, taking steps to reduce insect exposure can be extremely beneficial to the severity of Sweet Itch your horse experiences.

Stabling: When your horse is stabled, consider installing a mosquito screen to cover any doors or windows where mosquitos may gain access to your horse. Installing fans outside the stable can also be effective in helping reduce the fly burden. Although these measures may seem extreme, for some horses, even just a few mosquito bites can result in a major flare-up of symptoms and discomfort.

Turnout: Changes in turnout management will also decrease exposure to flies. For horses suffering from Sweet Itch, the ideal turnout environment is open and windy, away from standing water and wooded areas where insects like to live and breed. Keeping paddocks clean, removing dung daily, and installing field fly traps may also assist in the prevention of the problem. Adequate shelter from the elements (sun, wind, and rain) should also be considered, field shelters as such are excellent, but areas should be kept clean.

Studies have suggested that insects are more active during sunset and sunrise, with little to no activity seen throughout the afternoon and night. Therefore, from late spring until late autumn, turnout should be limited to avoid these times of the day.

Products: The addition of a fly rug that offers complete cover may also be beneficial to your horse, providing a physical barrier to insect bites. Fly masks and add-ons, such as forelimb attachments, can aid in increasing coverage in extreme cases.

Fly repellents have also been regarded as essential when combatting insect attraction to your horse. Use, in conjunction with fly rugs and when stabled, will provide maximum and the most efficient protection against any determined insect. Solutions containing citronella and benzyl benzoate have been reported to be effective in some horses and are widely available on the equestrian market. However, look out for fly repellents containing pyrethroids and Diethyl-m-toluamide (DEET), as these produce more potent effects.

Garlic has been hailed as an alternative herbal remedy for deterring flies. Interestingly, garlic oil could be a potential alternative to fly repellents. In humans, it has been found that the application of a 1% dilution of garlic oil to the skin resulted in a 97% repellent effectiveness. However, garlic’s effect as an equine insect repellent has not been proven but it seems to work to increase feed palatability. With the potential of toxicity from too much garlic, it may be best to stick with commercial repellents for safe and effective pest control.

The Take-Away

When tackling Sweet Itch, make sure you know what you’re dealing with by ruling out any other cause of skin irritation. Remember, symptoms should only be present between late spring and late autumn!

Precautions to reduce the effect of Sweet Itch include adaptation to general management to prevent insect bites and soothing already irritated skin. Treatment programmes should begin mid-February, with regular reapplication throughout spring, summer and early autumn.

Treatment programmes should begin mid-February, with regular reapplication throughout spring, summer and early autumn.

Shampooing your horse regularly with soothing products alongside the application of moisturising creams can be extremely beneficial to alleviate the persistent irritation and discomfort your horse is experiencing. Caution should be taken when skin is already damaged, as horses can become extremely defensive and irritated when working close to the affected area. Choose a quiet time of day, take your time and reward your horse for his cooperation.

Reduction in exposure to flies will also be beneficial to your horse. Use of fly rugs, in conjunction with potent fly sprays, will guarantee a high level of pest control. Additionally, moving to an open, breezy paddock, and ensuring your horse is stabled during sunset and sunrise will be aid reduction of insects in your horse’s day to-day life.

All year-round supplements may help improve the structure and reaction of the skin from the fly bites. Finally, go easy on the garlic! Small amounts won’t harm your horse and may aid fly repelling, but large amounts can be harmful to your horse. Invest in rugs, fly repelling sprays and lotions, and good time management instead.

Written by Abby Dickinson, BSc Hons Equine Science

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Abby Dickinson

Journalist and News Reporter, Everything Horse Reporting on equestrian news stories, Abby also produces a variety of engaging content for the magazine.

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