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White Spot or Ick Is a Common, But Easily Curable Fish Disease
White spot disease is caused by a parasite called Ichthyophthirius multifilis. This disease is also called Ick or sometimes Ich or Ichy.
The fish has white spots on its skin. The spots are the size of a pin head and the fish may look as if it has been sprinkled with salt or sugar. The parasite also attacks the gills of the fish. This is harder to see. The gills may appear redder than usual, but this is difficult to see and overly red gills can be caused by a number of things. A gill infection makes it difficult for the fish to absorb oxygen from the water, and infected fish may show signs of oxygen deprivation such as “gasping” at the surface or apparently breathing very rapidly. This lack of oxygen can be caused by many things.
Sometimes fish will swim down and try to rub their skin on objects. This is called “flashing” and can be caused by any skin irritation.
Sometimes fish show no obvious symptoms and simply die. If a fish dies, you need to look very carefully at all the fish in the aquarium.
This is a very common fish disease. The parasite is present at low levels in most aquariums, often without causing any problems. Most fish have been exposed to this parasite and have developed some immunity. Those fish that have been reared in the complete absence of the parasite will not have this acquired immunity and will be very vulnerable to infection.
The claim that this parasite is present in most aquariums is often misunderstood. Ichthyophthirius Multifilis it cannot lie dormant for long periods. It survives by feeding on fish. An aquarium can be empty of fish for a month. It will be freed from the white spot parasite. Fish that were free of visible disease were then purchased and then quarantined. This fish can be introduced into the empty aquarium and develop a white spot. One could erroneously conclude that either the empty tank had dormant white spot or that the quarantine was not performed properly.
What would actually happen would be that the fish would simply have a white spot infection without any symptoms. A successful parasite does not make its host sick. If the parasite destroys all the fish in the aquarium, lake or pond it is in, the parasite itself will also die. In the wild, the white spot parasite is apparently successful and most of the time does not kill its host. In the unnatural ecosystem of an aquarium, it can easily get out of balance and kill all the fish. This is not only fatal to the fish; it is also fatal to the parasite.
The ideal parasite is one that actually confers some advantage on its host. As far as I know, the presence of the white spot parasite is not an advantage for the fish, but other parasite-host relationships may have evolved into symbiotic ones in which both organisms gain an advantage.
If something stresses the fish, their immune system often becomes less effective. The same effect can be observed in humans. You are much more likely to get both mild and severe illnesses when you are under stress.
There are many things that can stress a fish. A very common one is simply to be caught, placed in a plastic bag and transported to a new home. A common time for an outbreak of white spot is immediately after the addition of new fish. Some people incorrectly assume that the new fish introduced the parasite. They can then go back to the store they brought it from and see that the tank the fish came from is perfectly fine.
Other types of stress include changes in temperature, pH, dH or any other water parameter.
Circle of life
Ichthyophthirius Multifilisis an obligate parasite. This means that it can only live in the presence of fish. The actual visible white spots are the feeding stage called the trophont. The trophont grows and then falls off the fish, falling to the bottom of the aquarium and forming a cyst called a tomont. Up to 1000 tomites can form inside a tomont. The tomont opens and the toms go into the water.
The time required for Ichthyophthirius Multifilis to complete its life cycle depends on the temperature of the water. At 6 degrees C (43 degrees F) it goes through its life cycle in about 55 days, while at 29 degrees C (84 degrees F) it completes its cycle in only about 4 days.
The Tomites must find fish quickly or they will die. At normal tropical fish tank temperatures, they only have about 2 days to find fish to infect.
Fish trophont probably cannot be successfully treated, although there are claims of successful treatment with salt baths. Tomonts on the bottom of the tank are also difficult to kill, although they can be removed by washing with gravel. Keeping the tank clean will help.
The only stage that is easily treatable is the free-swimming tomite. This can be destroyed by many things including heat, UV light, salt and many other chemicals.
There are many possible forms of treatment. All the different ways to kill the parasite suffer from the problem that there are many strains of this parasite and they differ in their sensitivity to treatment. Here are some of the ways to treat this disease:
There are many commercial treatments for white spots. They usually use some combination of chemicals such as methylene blue, malachite green, formaldehyde, acriflavine, etc. In our tanks, the remedy I prefer is Wardley Ickaway, but different people will have their own preferences.
Note that these drugs are absorbed by activated carbon and if you have carbon filtration, it should be turned off. Most of the drugs are also destroyed by ultraviolet light, so ultraviolet sterilization should also be excluded.
Tetras and other characines, scaleless fish such as loons and catfish, and small fish are more susceptible to many of these drugs and will need to be used at half the normal rate. You can use half speed at twice the normal frequency.
The life cycle of this parasite is greatly accelerated by heat. Increasing the temperature will make the chemical treatments faster, but it will also mean that the infection will spread more quickly.
However, if the temperature rises high enough, the parasite cannot reproduce and the infection can only be cured with heat. But some species of fish cannot withstand the temperature required to destroy the white spot. To interrupt the life cycle of this parasite, you need to raise the temperature to about 30 degrees C (86 degrees F). To kill the parasite, you need to raise the temperature to about 32 degrees C (89.6 degrees F). This temperature must be maintained for at least four days to have a good chance of killing the parasite. Not all fish can survive this treatment and many that can will be severely stressed by it. Increased aeration will be needed because oxygen does not dissolve as much in warm water, and the fish’s metabolism increases as the water warms, so more oxygen is needed.
This treatment method is sometimes the method of choice if you are treating labyrinth fish such as Siamese fighting fish, gourami or paradise fish. These fish can survive in the required temperatures and can breathe air as well as water.
Some people have reported success in treating this disease by careful use of chlorinated tap water. Personally, I would not try this and advise other people not to. The actual level of chlorine in tap water varies not only by location, but also by day of the week and season of the year.
Besides the difficulty of getting the right dose of chlorine, there is the problem that some places, like the Adelaide Hills where I live, have chlorinated water. It’s deadly to the fish and I wouldn’t risk using the water without dechlorinating it at all.
Salt will kill the white spot parasite, but different strains have different tolerances. Most types of white spot will be killed by 3 grams per liter of salt, but to be sure, you will need to use 5 grams per liter.
This means that many common aquarium fish cannot survive the level of salt needed to destroy white spot. In general, this treatment method is not suitable for fish from places without much salt in the water, such as the Amazon, Congo and Orinoco rivers.
Can be used on viviparous animals such as guppies, mollies, cloths and swordfish. It can also be used with some of the Australian fish such as Murray Cod, Silver Perch and Catfish, but is not safe for Rainbow Fish.
Most aquarium plants will be killed by this level of salt.
UV light will kill the free-swimming tomite stage of the parasite, but it can only work on tomites that have actually been sucked through the UV sterilizer. You are more likely to get good results if the UV unit is more powerful than what is usually recommended for your size aquarium.
A UV filter will help prevent white spots, but cannot be relied upon to cure them.
Disease free fish
It is possible to breed fish in the complete absence of the white parasite. This is the case with many of the live layers bred in Malaysia. These fish are raised in water that is a mixture of fresh water and seawater, sometimes having half the salt concentration of pure seawater. These fish will never have been exposed to white spots and some other diseases and will be very susceptible to them. These fish can be destroyed quickly. If purchased, they should be monitored and prompt treatment administered if necessary. Aquarium stores usually warn their customers that the fish are disease-free.
A white spot infection damages the skin of the fish and it is common for bacterial or fungal infections to appear along with the white spot.
Some types of fish get white spot disease more easily than others. The Clown Loach has a particularly bad reputation for getting this disease.
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