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Understanding Sweet Itch in Horses: Treatment & Management

Scottie in hiw sweet itch rug

Sweet itch is primarily caused by an allergic reaction to the saliva of Culicoides midges. This allergic reaction results in severe itching, leading horses to scratch and rub excessively, causing hair loss, sores, and skin infections. Unfortunately, there is no cure for allergies. But with good management, you can help to prevent flare ups and you can treat the symptoms.

Management Strategies for Sweet Itch

As with most things horse related, prevention is better than treatment. Better understanding the life cycle of the midges in your area and taking steps to reduce your horse’s contact with them, will ultimately reduce the number or bites and the severvity of their reaction.

Environmental Control

  • Avoid standing water: Midges breed in standing or slow moving water. Horses who suffer from sweet itch should be kept away from these areas during the warmer months where possible. Horses in fields next to water might be best moving fields or inside during peak times.
  • Dusk & Dawn: Midges are most active at dusk and dawn. Common advice is to keep the horse stabled during these times. But depending on your set up, you might actually have more midges on the yard than in the field. This is certainly the case at my yard.
  • Breeze is good: Midges struggle to fly in a breeze and disappear in bad weather. Out in a breezey field or inside with a fan can be enough to stop the midges getting to your horse.

Protective Clothing & Repellant

  • Sweet Itch Rugs: Specially designed rugs cover most of the horse’s body, providing a barrier against midge bites. These rugs are made from lightweight, breathable materials and can be very effective in preventing bites. They tend to be closer fitting and a smaller mesh than your typical fly rug.
  • Fly Masks and Hoods: These protect the horse’s face and neck, areas that are often affected by sweet itch.
  • Fly Repellents: Applying fly repellent sprays or lotions can help reduce midge bites. Finding the right fly repellant for you and your horse can take a bit of trial and error. Some of the most effective repellants also tend to have the strongest ingredients in. These can cause skin reactions.

Diet and Supplements

  • Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids: Adding these to the horse’s diet can support skin health and reduce inflammation. Supplements such as flaxseed oil, fish oil, or specific equine skin supplements can be beneficial by promoting healthier skin.
  • Balanced Diet: Ensure your horse is receiving a balanced diet with all essential nutrients. Poor nutrition can exacerbate skin conditions, so a well-rounded diet is crucial.

Regular Grooming and Skin Care

  • Grooming: Regular grooming helps keep the skin clean and can help identify early signs of sweet itch. Use gentle brushes and avoid harsh grooming products. You might also want to bath your horse, even if it’s just the areas affected once or twice a week. This can help by washing away anything that might start to cause a reaction.
  • Skin Care: Keeping the skin moisturised and healthy is important. Healthy skin often has less severe reactions and recovers faster. Just as we apply moisturiser to our skin, there are lotions you can apply to common problem areas to help keep it hydrated and healthy.

Treatment Options for Sweet Itch

As previously mentioned, there is no cure for Sweet Itch. But you can treat the symptoms, making your horse more comfortable.

Topical Treatments:

  • Anti-Itch Creams and Ointments: Some horses benefit from these, others don’t. But they are usually worth giving a few different ones a go. These products work in a variety of ways. Many help by soothing itchy skin, stopping the horse from needing to scratch the itch. They often have other benefits such as promoting skin growth or perhaps repelling flies. You can go down a herbal route such as aloe vera, or you can go down a more medicated route. But most owners will have 1 or 2 lotions they highly recommend.
  • Bathing affected areas: Regular bathing with medicated shampoos or soothing shampoos can help manage the symptoms. Look for products containing ingredients such as; oatmeal, aloe vera, or tea tree oil to help soothe itchy skin.

Oral Medications:

  • Antihistamines: These can help reduce the allergic response and alleviate itching. However, their effectiveness varies, and they are best used under veterinary guidance.
  • Corticosteroids: In severe cases, corticosteroids may be prescribed to reduce inflammation and itching. Long-term use is not recommended due to potential side effects, so these are typically used for short-term relief during peak seasons.


  • Some horses benefit from immunotherapy, which involves desensitising the horse to the allergens causing the reaction. This treatment requires a series of injections and should be administered by a veterinarian.

Managing sweet itch in horses requires a multi-faceted approach, combining effective treatment options with proactive management strategies. By understanding the condition and implementing these tips, you can significantly reduce the impact of sweet itch on your horse, helping they remain comfortable and healthy throughout the midge season.

Last Updated on 14/06/2024

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