Did you have a mosquito bite as a kid?
One day you were fine; the next day you felt a little feverish and had these raised red bumps all over your body. The worst part was the all-consuming, unrelenting itchiness. All you could think about was scratching this itch here, really getting your nails in there, regardless of the damage it could cause. Maybe your mom even ended up putting mittens on you to prevent scabs.
If your horse has sweet itch, this is the kind of discomfort they are likely experiencing. And unfortunately, it’s hard to put mittens on a horse.
Read on to learn more about sweet itch, what causes it, and the best way to soothe your itchy equine pal’s irritated skin.
What is Sweet Itch?
Culicoides. Biting gnats. Midges. No-see-ums. The tiny predators that cause sweet itch in horses go by many names, but all lead back to the same horrible result: a rash your horse can’t shake.1
Sweet itch is an intense allergic reaction stemming from one of these nasty gnats. It’s not the bite wound itself; it’s the biting midge’s saliva. Just like how not everyone is allergic to peanuts, not all horses are sensitive to midge saliva. But when they are sensitive, it causes excess histamine to be released in your horse’s bloodstream.
What follows is an intense allergic reaction that won’t quit.
It’s especially tough to stop sweet itch because midge bites are relentless. And there’s a reason sweet itch is often referred to as a seasonal allergy. Culicoides are most active during summertime, when your horse is likely running around (and running into bugs) the most. Repeated bites mean repeated itchiness.
Different species of culicoides bite in different places, but wherever they choose to chomp, your horse will scratch—often to the point of hair loss, open wounds, hardened skin, and other irritations.
How to Identify Sweet Itch
Plenty of horses with sensitive skin often break out in rashes from environmental factors. Innocuous bug bites, pollen, fly spray, and even the wrong kind of bedding can cause minor allergies in your sensitive horse. But a generic allergic reaction looks a lot different than the allergic response that results from sweet itch.
“Normal” horse rashes, or those related to common allergens, typically present with:
- Raised lumps and bumps covering the neck, face, belly, or entire body
- Swollen eyes, face, and muzzle
- Coughing, wheezing, trouble breathing
- Some itching, seeing your horse lick and bite the skin
Rashes that appear from sweet itch present with:
- Swelling and patterns of bruising and welts that may affect the:
- Mane and neck
- Base of the tail
- Center of the belly
- Face and ears
- A combination of the above
- Intense itching, where your horse is clearly showing signs of distress and discomfort
- Skin rubbed until it is weepy, raw, crusty, and hairless—similar to mange or other types of allergic dermatitis
Though sweet itch can affect any horse, the severity of their allergic response can be genetic. If you can get info on your pony’s forbearers, it can help you pinpoint whether or not your horse is predisposed to develop sweet itch.
Likewise, some breeds are more likely to develop a reaction than others.2 If you have a Welsh pony, Icelandic horse, or a Shire, keep your eyes peeled for that intense itching and characteristic hair loss.
Treating Sweet Itch
There’s nothing sweet about how this rash makes an affected horse feel. But there is something to be said of the sweet relief achieved when proper treatment is applied to midge bites.
There is no immediate cure for sweet itch. Typically, veterinarians will start by performing some diagnostic tests to rule out other causes for the itching by scraping a small skin culture.
The treatment that follows may include steroids, antihistamines, and antibiotics to prevent infection. Omega 3 fatty acids and MSM supplements have been shown to help build up immunity to sweet itch in the future, and long-term remedies include immunotherapy. A vet will help you inject small doses of the allergen in gnat saliva, to build up your horse’s tolerance for the next season.
For horses already suffering from sweet itch, there is an opportunity for fast skin-deep relief. Vetericyn provides the best two-course regimen for sweet itch out there. And best of all, it will fit right into your regular routine.
Step #1: Start With Medicated Shampoo
If your horse is feeling under the weather due to sweet itch, Vetericyn can help. Our shampoo treats itchy skin along with other skin conditions (fungal disorders, ringworm, girth itch, and more).
Vetericyn FoamCare® Equine Medicated Shampoo is designed to bring veterinary-quality care into your stable. At the same time, it works hard to deliver nutrients directly to your horse’s skin to boost their immune system against future breakouts. Our shampoo is:
- pH balanced for equine skin
- Formulated for optimal equine coat health and conditioning
- Free of harsh chemicals
- Free of chemical dyes
- Plant based
- Formulated to retain essential oils
- Easy on your wallet by providing more washes per bottle
Step #2: Heal Your Horse’s Now-Clean Skin
Now that your horse has had a relaxing foamy bath, their skin is clean and prepped to absorb our Vetericyn Plus® Antimicrobial Equine Wound and Skin Care Liquid.
The skin care liquid doesn’t just treat conditions like sweet itch; it works on a horse cut, scrape, or even to flush abscesses in horses, too. As every horse owner is aware, if it’s not sweet itch, it will be something else. Unfortunately, as strong as they are, our horses can be fragile creatures.
Our Equine Wound and Skin Care Liquid is safe, veterinary-recommended technology. We specially engineer our products to make your horse feel like themselves again from the comfort of your stable. In addition, our skin care formula is:
- Completely non-toxic, even if ingested
- Safe to use around the eyes, ears, and mouth
- Non-irritating and painless to use
- Made without antibiotics, steroids, or alcohol
- Excellent in promoting the healing process and the growth of healthy new tissue
- Clear and won’t stain horse’s’ coat
If you don’t have time for a vet visit, try the next best solution. Your horse will thank you for alleviating the assault of itchiness that those pesky flies bring every season.
Preventing Sweet Itch
Flies aren’t easy to prevent. When you can hardly see the insect, how are you supposed to keep it out of your stable? However, similar to horsefly bite treatment, trying to prevent insects in the first place is a key part of sweet itch treatment. Here are a few ways you can lessen your horse’s exposure to no-see-ums this summer.
Give Your Steed Some Armor
One of the best ways to prevent bites (from any insect, not just midges) is to protect your horse’s skin.3 Methods range from full-body sheets to individual fly boots, fly masks, and body covers. Just make sure whatever your horse is wearing is breathable for those hot months. If your horse hates wearing covers, you can also try installing mesh screens or curtains on all barn openings to prevent bugs from flying in.
Keep it Clean
Eliminate manure and trampled hay as soon as you see it. Keeping your horse’s stable squeaky clean will prevent any biting fly from being attracted to the area. Maintain your horse’s feed and water, too. Still water can be a breeding ground for bugs, including midges and mosquitoes.
Welcome the Wind
Culicoides cannot fly in wind faster than 5 mph.4 So installing a fan in your stable is a great way to prevent these midges from sticking the landing on your horse. Plus, your horse will love a cool breeze through its mane on those scorching days.
Forbid Fly-Ridden Areas
When you’re letting your horse explore or taking them on an exhilarating ride, be aware of the popular gnat hangouts and avoid them. These include marshy areas, bogs, and standing water. Even the shady ground under a tree can be gnat city if there is enough rotting vegetation underneath.
In addition, be aware of peak midge hours. Keep your horse stabled at dawn and dusk, when the flies are most active, to prevent bites.
From Sweet Itch to Sweet Relief
Sometimes, you can practice all the prevention in the world, and your horse still gets bitten. They still break out in hives or sweet itch, scratching away their skin and coat. You can’t protect your horse from everything, but you can help them when they’re experiencing discomfort.
Vetericyn’s FoamCare Medicated Equine Shampoo and Equine Wound and Skin Care Liquid are there to soothe when things get itchy. You don’t always need to go to the veterinarian to get vet-level care for your horse’s skin and coat.
Keep your horse cool and composed in those hot summer months and all year round with Vetericyn.
Reviewed by Dan Richardson, Veterinarian
Dan Richardson has been a practicing veterinarian for over 10 years. He specializes in surgery and orthopedics. Dan is originally from rural western Nevada and attended the University of Idaho for undergraduate study and Oregon State University for Veterinary School. The Richardson Family enjoys camping and spending time on the water fishing, paddle boarding, or digging their feet in the sand somewhere warm.
- The Horse. Sweet Itch: Itching for a Cure. https://thehorse.com/157859/sweet-itch-itching-for-a-cure/
- Smartpak. Sweet Itch in Horses. https://www.smartpakequine.com/content/sweet-itch
- Equus. 5 ways to prevent sweet itch. https://equusmagazine.com/diseases/prevention-sweet-itch-28009
- Horse and Hound. 10 ways to beat sweet itch this summer. https://www.horseandhound.co.uk/features/how-to-manage-sweet-itch-530771