Severe Sweet Itch in Horses: Effective Treatment and Prevention Strategies

sweet itch in horses

Sweet itch, also known as summer eczema, is a common allergic skin disease that affects horses, particularly in areas with hot and humid climates. The condition is caused by an allergic reaction to the saliva of biting midges and other flying insects that feed on the horse’s skin during the summer months. The sweet itch can be a painful and uncomfortable condition for horses, and it can also lead to severe skin damage and infection if left untreated. In this article, we will discuss the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for sweet itch in horses.

Symptoms of Sweet Itch in Horses

The symptoms of sweet itch in horses can vary depending on the severity of the condition. Mild cases may only cause minor irritation and itching, while more severe cases can lead to open sores and infection. Some common symptoms of sweet itch in horses include:

  • Itching and rubbing: Horses with sweet itch will often itch and rub their skin excessively, particularly around the mane and tail areas.
  • Hair loss: Over time, the constant rubbing and scratching can cause hair loss and thinning, which can make the skin more vulnerable to further irritation and infection.
  • Scabs and sores: If the skin is repeatedly scratched, it can become inflamed and irritated, leading to the formation of scabs and sores. These can be painful for the horse and can also increase the risk of secondary infections.
  • Thickened skin: In severe cases, the skin can become thickened and leathery, particularly around the mane and tail areas. This can make it more difficult to treat the condition and may require more intensive treatment methods.

Signs of Sweet Itch in Horses

In addition to the symptoms mentioned above, there are several signs that may indicate that a horse has a sweet itch. These can include:

  • Agitation and restlessness: Horses with sweet itch may become agitated and restless, particularly during the hours when the biting gnats are most active.
  • Loss of condition: If the horse is constantly scratching and rubbing, it may lose condition and become thin or underweight.
  • Sensitivity to touch: Horses with sweet itch may be more sensitive to touch, particularly in the areas where the skin is inflamed or irritated.
  • Tail swishing: Horses may swish their tail frequently in an attempt to alleviate the itching and discomfort caused by sweet itch.
  • Stampeding: In some cases, horses may become so agitated by the biting gnats that they will stampede or run blindly in an attempt to escape them.

How to Cure Sweet Itch in Horses

There is no cure for sweet itch, but there are several treatment options that can help manage the symptoms and prevent further irritation and infection. Some effective treatments for sweet itch in horses include:

  1. Fly control: One of the most important aspects of treating sweet itch is controlling the biting gnats that cause the condition. This can be done by using fly repellent sprays or applying insecticide to the horse’s environment, such as in the barn or pasture. Fly masks and sheets can also provide a physical barrier between the horse’s skin and the biting insects.
  2. Skincare: Proper skin care is essential for managing sweet itch. This includes keeping the affected areas clean and dry and applying soothing creams or ointments to help alleviate itching and prevent infection. Some common skin care products for sweet itch include corticosteroids, antihistamines, and immunomodulators. These medications can help reduce inflammation and control the horse’s allergic response to the biting gnats. However, they should only be used under the guidance of a veterinarian, as they can have side effects and may not be suitable for all horses.
  3. Dietary changes: Some horses may benefit from dietary changes to help manage sweet itch. Adding supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids or vitamin E may help improve skin health and reduce inflammation. Horses with allergies may also benefit from a hypoallergenic diet or a limited-ingredient diet.
  4. Alternative therapies: There are several alternative therapies that may help manage sweet itch in horses, such as acupuncture, herbal remedies, and homeopathy. However, it is important to consult with a qualified practitioner before trying any alternative therapies, as some may be ineffective or even harmful.

Preventing Sweet Itch in Horses

Preventing sweet itch is key to keeping your horse healthy and comfortable during the summer months. Some ways to prevent sweet itch in horses include:

  • Fly control: As mentioned earlier, controlling the biting gnats that cause sweet itch is essential for prevention. Use fly repellents, insecticides, and fly sheets to keep the insects at bay.
  • Reduce exposure: Try to keep horses inside during the times when the biting gnats are most active, such as at dawn and dusk. Use fans to create a breeze and keep the air moving, as this can help deter insects.
  • Good stable management: Keeping stables and pastures clean and well-maintained can also help prevent sweet itch. Remove any standing water or damp areas, as these can attract biting gnats. Regularly clean and disinfect stables and equipment to prevent the spread of infection.
  • Regular grooming: Regular grooming can help keep horses’ skin healthy and reduce the risk of sweet itch. Use a soft brush or curry comb to remove dirt and debris, and check for any signs of irritation or infection.


Sweet itch is a common and frustrating condition for horses and their owners. However, with proper treatment and prevention, it is possible to manage the symptoms and keep your horse healthy and comfortable. Work with your veterinarian to develop a comprehensive treatment plan that includes fly control, skincare, and medication if necessary. With the right care and attention, your horse can enjoy the summer months without the discomfort of sweet itch.


Is sweet itch in horses contagious?

Sweet itch is not contagious and cannot be passed from one horse to another. However, horses that live in the same environment may be exposed to the same biting gnats, so it is not uncommon for multiple horses in a barn or pasture to develop sweet itch at the same time. It is important to treat all affected horses promptly to prevent the condition from spreading or worsening.

What is the best antihistamine for horses with sweet itch?

Hydroxyzine and cetirizine are commonly used antihistamines for horses with sweet itch, but the best option depends on the individual horse and their specific needs.

Is sweet itch painful?

The sweet itch can be a painful and uncomfortable condition for horses. The itching and scratching caused by the allergic reaction can lead to skin damage, open wounds, and secondary infections, which can cause pain and discomfort. In addition, the inflamed and irritated skin can be sensitive to the touch, causing further discomfort for the horse.

What supplements can I give my horse for itching?

There are several supplements that can be helpful in managing sweet itch in horses. One of these is cod liver oil, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids that can help to reduce inflammation and improve skin health. However, it’s important to note that cod liver oil alone may not be enough to completely alleviate your horse’s itching and other symptoms.

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