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What is Sweet Itch?

Posted on 24 June 2015 by Kim

What is sweet itch

Sweet Itch is an irritating and sometimes painful condition that affects horses in the hotter months of the year. Theoretically any breed can fall prey to it however it tends to be more common in cobs more than in Arabs, thoroughbreds and other warm-blooded non-native breeds. Alternative names for it include IBH - insect bite hypersensitivity - Queensland Itch, Equine Summer Itch and SSRD or Summer Seasonal Recurrent Dermatitis.

What causes Sweet Itch?

Sweet Itch is an allergic reaction to the saliva in the bite of midges (Culicoides Fly).  Most horses are unaffected by the bite and will not display an allergic reaction. However those that are react to the allergenic compounds that are found in the saliva of the midge. Sadly it's not yet known precisely which compound causes the reaction, or if it varies from case to case.

What time of the year does it occur?

Sweet Itch is generally only seen when midges are out in significant numbers, such as in the spring and summer and sometimes, into the autumn. In winter midges are usually dormant. However, in severe cases, midge attacks in the autumn can continue to cause the symptoms for many weeks.

What are the symptoms?

The first symptom that you’ll notice is severe itching and ribbing the affected area of the skin. Then painful looking lesions or sores develop in the places that have been rubbed. Sweet Itch is not contagious.

What does Sweet Itch look like?

The photographs below show what this condition looks like.

Dock affected by Sweet Itch   Mae affected by Sweet Itch

What areas of the horses are affected?

The most common place that the horse rubs are the crest of the mane and the top of the tail. Alternatively you might see patches along the spine and around the head and ears. Do bear though it can actually affect any area of the body.

What’s the best way to prevent it?

Sweet itch is one of the most difficult skin conditions to control and unfortunately there’s no cure for it. It’s almost impossible to reverse an allergic reaction once a horse has been bitten. So before you contemplate splashing out on potions, there are the best approach to prevent or minimise the chances of the midges biting in the first place.  Once a horse develops the allergy it can get worse year on year. So the horse’s comfort and well-being are down to the owner’s management which requires no financial outlay…

  • Avoid turning out or riding in areas where there is still or stagnant water as midges thrive in this environment. Avoid hacking in woodland areas too as these are also usually full of midges too
  • Ride and turn out on blustery days as midges cannot remain airborne in winds above 5mph. You’ll probably find that your horse is worst affected on still days
  • Keep your horse in his stable in the evenings between 4pm and 9pm as this is when the midges are most active. This can help to reduce the severity of an attack or prevent it altogether.

Need to treat sweet itch?

Read my other blog on how to treat sweet itch and find out more about the myriad of products that are available nowadays.

How to treat sweet itch



Kim Horton

Co-Founder of EQUUS and a keen equestrian, when Kim's not at her desk she's with her horse, Waldo.

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