Alex is a marine biologist, aquarist, lover of animals, an experienced veterinary assistant, and has a Bachelor of Science in Biology.
Kin Hubbard said it best: "No one can feel as helpless as the owner of a sick goldfish." That pretty much sums up what any aquarium owner feels when they first discover their fish are not well. Don't despair! Not all fish diseases mean your little friends will soon be taking a trip on the porcelain express. In fact, many common ailments of freshwater fish can be cured. Sadly, many diseases that can be cured are often fatal if left untreated.
Tips for Preventing Disease
To start, there are things you can do that will help you prevent diseases in your tank and recognize the signs of illness early.
Maintain Good Water Quality
It is imperative that you maintain good water quality in your aquarium. You can improve the health of your fish simply by making sure the water in which it lives meets its needs. When their water quality needs are not met, fish do not behave normally. A perfect example of this is that fish typically are sluggish when the water temperature gets too cold. Slowly warming the water up to their desired temperature will make the fish more active.
Understand Your Fish's Behavior
It is important to note how your fish are behaving on a daily basis. This will help you determine if their behavior is normal or not. It will also help to do some research as far as what kinds of behaviors are considered normal for your species of fish. Plecos do not behave the same as a tetra; if your tetra starts to act like a pleco (spending all of its time sitting on the bottom), you might have a problem.
Once you know that you have good water quality and have gotten to know the behavior of your fish, it is easier to determine if they are sick. This puts you on the path to, hopefully, treating your fish before it gets too late.
Know How to Recognize Common Freshwater Fish Diseases
Below, we'll take a detailed look at these three common diseases:
Ichthyophthirius multifiliis (Ich)
This is more commonly known as ich, ick, or white spot disease. Simply put, ich is a parasite. It is easily diagnosed by the appearance of white spots that look like salt or sugar grains. Other signs of ich include loss of appetite, labored breathing, and flashing (when fish rub their bodies on the substrate or decorations). Of course, these other symptoms could also point to many other diseases; this is why the characteristic white spots are so important in this diagnosis.
The Life Stages of Ich
Ich is a nasty parasite. It exists in three different stages:
- The first stage is when the parasite is visible with the naked eye; these are the white spots you see on your fish. After a few days of feeding upon the fish, the parasite leaves the fish.
- Once the parasite leaves the fish, it enters the second stage of its life cycle. This free-swimming stage is the time when it can be treated with chemicals. However, once it settles into the substrate, it begins its reproductive cycle and is no longer affected by chemical treatments.
- When the new parasites emerge from the substrate and start to look for a new host, it has entered the third life stage. If they do not find a host in a few days, they will die. Again, while they are swimming in the water and not attached to anything, the parasite can be killed by chemicals. If left untreated, ich has a 100% mortality rate.
Treatment Methods for Ich
Now that you know what is attacking your fish, how do you kill it? There are a few different methods to choose from. As a hobbyist aquarist and a professional aquarist, I like to use several different methods of treatment. Ich is not something to take lightly. If I see it in my system, I treat it as aggressively as I can.
- Increase the Water Temperature: The first approach is to increase the temperature of your water—as long as your fish can tolerate it, that is. This will help speed up the life cycle of the parasite. Why would you want that? Because there are only two times when you can kill it with chemicals: after it falls off your fish (but before it reproduces) and after the new parasites are born (but before they attach themselves to your fish).
- Add Salt: Another approach is to add salt to your tank. A tablespoon of aquarium salt per gallon of water is a good rule to go by. Remember, you are not trying to make saltwater, but rather to make it uncomfortable for the ich to live.
- Use Medications: Medications are often the home aquarists' go-to when treating ich. They are easy enough to find since nearly every pet store sells them. (That should give you an idea of how common ich is.) The most common chemicals used are formalin, malachite green, or a combination of both of these. The type of fish you have can dictate which chemicals to use, especially since some chemicals are not safe for some kinds of fish. As always, follow the directions completely when using any chemicals. Typically, you will need to remove your carbon filtration when medicating and do a water change daily before re-dosing.
My personal choice for ich treatment is an immediate water change (gravel washing will help get rid of the reproducing parasites in the substrate), increasing the temperature to around 80 degrees, adding a little bit a salt (just a tablespoon), and then treating with chemicals. Like I said, I like an aggressive approach to ich treatment. Ich is not welcome in my tank, and I make it obvious.
Side Note: Killing Ich With Heat
Some articles suggest that you can kill ich with heat. This makes logical sense. The water becomes too hot for the ich to survive. Once you have acclimated your tank to the temperature desired, it needs to be maintained for at least ten days. This will ensure that all of the parasites have been killed.
That being said, do not attempt this unless you are sure that your fish can handle the temperature. High temperatures can stress out or even kill your fish, and this is not good when the fish is already stressed from the parasite.
Contrary to what many people believe, dropsy is not actually a disease. It is a symptom that signals an array of underlying causes: parasites, bacterial infections, or even liver failure.
So what exactly is dropsy? It is a buildup of fluid in the body cavity of the fish. Often, the fish looks bloated with raised scales. The fish almost resembles a pinecone. Since there are so many different causes, dropsy must be taken seriously. In many cases, once the issue has progressed to the point of dropsy, it may already be too late for the fish.
What to Do if Your Fish Has Dropsy
If you want to try to save the fish, immediate action must be taken.
- The first step would be to quarantine the fish. This should prevent whatever has afflicted your fish from infecting the rest of the collection.
- The next step is to attempt to treat. Since dropsy has many different causes, it is best to just get medication that says it helps to treat dropsy. Many medications for bacterial and parasitic infections have this right on the label. However, if the dropsy is caused by liver failure, there is very little that you can do for this fish.
Popeye is easy enough to identify: One, or both, of the fish's eyes visibly bulge from the body. The eye may even appear to be cloudy. The swollen eye is caused by a buildup of fluids in the fish's eye. This can have many causes, some with treatments simpler than others.
If Both Eyes Are Affected
If the popeye is affecting both eyes, it is possible that poor water quality may be the culprit. Simply do a water change and ensure that you treat the water properly for your fish. If water quality was the problem, the popeye should clear up on its own with a little time.
If One Eye Is Affected
If the popeye is only in one eye, it is likely to have been caused by the fish bumping into something in the tank. Essentially, this is like the fish getting a bruise or a knot after running into a wall. If this is the case, then the popeye will go away on its own in time, just like with bruises with people.
If the Popeye Persists
However, if after a water change and a few days the popeye does not go away, it could be a bacterial or fungal infection. If this is the case, you will need to medicate your fish with either a bacterial or fungal medication. Sometimes trial and error is needed in treating fish; this is one of those cases.
Don't Freak Out!
The most important thing to keep in mind when you are dealing with sick fish is that it is going to be ok. Your ultimate goal is to eradicate whatever it is that is afflicting your fish. Sometimes that takes time. You are not going to get results overnight—not usually, anyway. Sometimes you need to combine methods or try different things.
Either way, you need to be patient. The fish is either going to die or it is going to live. Thankfully, most diseases are fast-acting, so the fish will not suffer long. This also means that if you are going to try to treat your fish, you need to do it at the first sign of trouble.
For More Reading
How to Prepare for Disease Outbreaks in Your Tank
There are many more diseases out there that affect freshwater fish. Those three are just some of the most common ailments that home aquarists deal with. Sooner or later, chances are very high that you will have to deal with an outbreak of ich. Sometimes, you don't learn things until you have to treat, or even lose, fish to disease.
Fish First Aid Kit
It is best to take the approach of preparing for the worse and hoping for the best. Many hobbyists learn after their first tango with disease that it is best to keep a fishy first aid kit. What should you include in such a kit?
- Any chemicals you might need to change the quality of your water. (This should be self-explanatory at this point.)
- Some sort of ich treatment.
- A bacterial infection medication.
- Something for fungal infections.
This way, you will have the bases covered in case something happens. If nothing you have on hand works, then it would be time to take a trip to the pet store and see if there is anything else available for your fish. Trust me, if you discover that your fish has ich at 10 on a Sunday night, you will be glad that you have everything that you need to deal with it on hand. Especially since waiting a day to go to the store could mean that your fish will not be alive when you get home from work the next day.
Keep calm. With diligence and a little luck, you can save your fish from many ailments. I hope you never have to deal with the world of parasites, fungus, and bacteria, but if you do, I wish you the best of luck.
Questions & Answers
Question: Why is my pond goldfish turning white?
Answer: Are you asking why the color of their skin is changing? Is the white stuff sloughing off the skin? If that is the case, then it could be a fungal infection. It could also be a bacterial infection. Test the water quality and see if you can find some medication that has both antifungal and antibacterial properties.
Question: Three of my fish, a tetra, a green convict, and a large angel, have a white circle on one eye, but none on their body. I have been treating them for a week, and the cichlids have gotten better, but now, they have the white eye again. What should I do now?
Answer: Is it just on the eye? Have you seen them bumping into any of the decorations? It could be an impact wound.
Question: Is there any way of treating fish fungus at home?
Answer: There are anti-fungal medications you can get from the pet store. Make sure that you research the symptoms before you treat because if it is a bacterial infection an anti-fungal won't do anything.
Denise on August 02, 2020:
I’ve been Trying to kill white spots for weeks. I’ve lost many moor., panda and pearlscale gold fish. It keeps coming I tried raising the water temp to 80 degrees I’ve tried most parasite killing medications. I’ve tried different tanks the one tank kills them faster so I had to put back into the regular aquarium it seems to keep them alive. I added pond salt yesterday 2 teaspoons per gallon the white spots seem to be getting more gray than white so I think that’s a good sign . How do I get rid of this forever.
DB on March 14, 2020:
My silver dollar has one raised white spot in the middle of his body it seems to be just on this one fish and it's no anywhere else on the fish
Alex (author) from Virginia Beach, VA on October 07, 2013:
The reason for treating for treating ich over a several day period is because the parasite, even with raised temperatures, has a life cycle of a few days. At 80 degrees (I don't go any higher because I do not have fish that can tolerate temperatures much higher, so people raise the temperatures as high as 90-95 degrees.) ich has a lifecycle of around 4-5 days. Personally I treat between 8-10 days to make sure that whatever I didn't kill in the first cycle gets killed in the second.
It is really up to the aquarist how long they want to treat. Some people stop treatment as soon as they no loner see any white spots. The big downside to this is that you haven't killed all of the parasites and you risk a relapse. Obviously you do not want to overly stress your fish. As my fish handle medication fairly well, they continue to eat and exhibit normal behaviors, I can afford to treat for 8-10 days. As I have never had a relapse of ich I am confident that my methods work.
SAM ELDER from Home on October 02, 2013:
Actually the reason of rising temperature is to help making the circle or live of ich move faster, which helps the ich's "eggs" hatch faster. So the treatment duration is no longer than couple of days if you use medicine.
Higher temperature is also affects fishes immune system and many times by rising temperature and by adding a small portion of pure sea salt into the tank can help to get rid of ich. Temperature should be adjusted as slow as possible to allow fish to get used to it and it must never exceed 32C.