Ich treatment is one of the most frequently discussed topics in fish keeping. Ich, or ick, more commonly known as the fish white spot disease, is in fact a parasite scientifically called Ichthyophthirius multifiliis. You do not need to remember the full spelling of the term since most people call the disease ich or ick. 😀 In order to have an effective ich treatment, we must first understand these parasites.
Life Stages of Ich Parasite
Ichthyophthirius has several stages in its life cycle. After an ich parasite attaches itself to a fish’s body, it will begin to feed on the fish. During this stage, the fish’s immune system will respond and begin to wall off the ich parasite in an futile attempt to stop it. As a result, it will form a cyst impenetrable to medications. This is when a fish showing visible white spots.
Infected fish will also periodically scratch themselves against objects, because it is indeed itchy for them. All such effort is futile since the ich cyst can’t be rubbed off just doing that. Eventually the well protected ich parasite will become mature and burst out of the cryst. Afterwards, the ich parasite will rapidly divide itself into many more water borne parasites actively seeking more victims. The whole life cycle of ich parasite can be from days to weeks depending on the water temperature in the aquarium.
If nothing is done, the ich life cycle will repeat itself. Due to the nature of ich life cycle, it is contagious. A single fish infected with an ich parasite can spread to all fish in the same fish tank. At this point, the fish are covered with more and more white spots while increasingly become irritated. When left untreated, the fish will have a 100% death rate, not directly to the ich itself, but often to the secondary infections caused by the parasites. It makes ich the number one killer among fish diseases.
Diagnosis of Ich on Aquarium Fish
While a fish is surely infected by ich if it has white spots on its body, it does not mean the fish is ich free when there is no visible sign. Sometimes the ich parasites can attach themselves inside the fish gills. There is also a time frame required for the cryst to form around the ich parasites already attached to the fish.
The Causes for Fish Ich in Home Aquariums
Contrary to popular false belief, ich will not materialize out of thin air (or water for that matter). Even the simplest single cell organisms require millions of years of evolution. For the fish to be infected by ich, there must be a source. In other words, the ich must be coming from somewhere. Either a fish was already infected by ich by the time you got it, or you might have brought in some water or media from contaminated source, e.g., the water, or even decorations, filter media, substrate, and plants from a fish tank with ich infected fish.
Prevention of Fish Ich in Home Aquariums
When purchasing new fish, we must carefully observe all fish in the fish tanks for sign of white spots. Many pet stores have one central filtration for many fish tanks. If there is just one fish with white spot in a single connected fish tank, the likelihood of bringing ich home is almost certain when you get any fish from these fish tanks. As was mentioned earlier, even when there is no sign of white spot, it is not guaranteed that the fish is not infected.
Since ich is contagious, a Quarantine Tank is highly recommended for all newly acquired aquarium fish. Give the new fish a minimum of two weeks in the quarantine tank. Any sign of ich or other diseases for that matter should have shown by then. Never use water from pet stores in your aquarium. Everything else you get directly from someone else’s fish tanks need to be washed thoroughly before being placed in your main aquarium. Wash your hands before and after they have touched possible ick infected fish tanks.
Ich Treatment for Fish
While there are many different types of fish medicine out there to treat ich, most of them are either ineffective, or too strong that it can be hard on fish. In other words, some sick fish might not live through the treatment. Some of the proven strong working fish medicine contains copper, which can kill all the inverts such as snails and shrimp, or even certain species of scaleless catfish in the aquarium. Other possible side effects could include damaging or crushing the aquarium nitrogen cycle, or even kill the live plants. That is why we recommend to cure ich without medication.
Ich Cure Without Medication – The Heat Treatment
Most ich strains dislike warm water. When the water temperature is over 86F, they will stop reproducing. As was mentioned earlier, the time required for ich to complete its life cycle is directly linked to the water temperature. Even when it has stopped reproducing, it will still age and die once its life cycle has come to an end. To take advantage of this weakness of ich parasites, some fish keepers have developed this proven method to eradicate ich without the use of any medicine.
Step One: In order to apply the heat treatment, you need an adjustable aquarium heater. Slowly and gradually increase the water temperature of your aquarium to 86F by raising the setting on the aquarium heater no more than 3F per hour. Fish is sensitive to a large swing of water temperature. That is why we must do it slowly and give fish time to adapt. Make sure you use a separate thermometer to monitor the actual water temperature. Do not trust the settings on the heater alone, since even the same model heaters might generate different water temperatures at the same settings.
One thing we need to make a note here is that the warmer the water, the less air it can hold. To prevent fish from a lack of oxygen, adding an air stone if you do not already have sufficient surface water movement.
Step Two: Once the aquarium water temperature has reached 86F, observe the behavior of your fish to make sure everything is fine. Most fish should have no problem with this adjustment as long as the temperature was not raised too rapidly.
Be patient. Usually at 86F, ich parasites will complete their life cycle within a few days. To make sure all of them have died of “old age”, we must wait for at least a full week. By that time, all signs of white spots should have disappeared and ich parasites have died without any offspring. Personally, I’d wait for a minimum of 3~4 days after no sign of white spots before making the conclusion.
Step Three: Several days have passed without any sign of white spots. You may slowly return the water temperature to normal. Reduce the setting on the heater no more than 3F per hour until it is back to where it used to be. The slower the process, the safer it is for the fish. Nobody wants to lose any fish over temperature fluctuation or any other issue during the ich treatment.
While most ich strains can be wiped out with this heat treatment, rare strains might survive it. If the heat treatment is ineffective, or if for some reason you are unable to raise your aquarium water temperature to over 86F, you might have no choice but to try medications. Due to the powerful side effect of strong medication, once again a quarantine tank can come in handy.
The medications we recommend for ich treatment are Kordon Rid Ich and SeaChem MetroPlex. Make sure you read the instructions carefully before using. Since the ich parasites are invulnerable during some of its life stages, the medication treatment should last at least two weeks to make sure all ich are killed. The heat treatment can be applied at the same time to speed up the life cycle of ich.
Important note: You need to keep the aquarium water quality excellent, and provide the fish with high quality fish foods. While these things will not cure the fish ick by themselves, they can be helpful during the ich treatment. The improvement of immune system and overall health can help the fish to have a better chance of survival.