Betta fish can experience a variety of uncomfortable and detrimental diseases, illnesses, and conditions throughout their lifetime. One of these is a parasitic infection known as ‘ich,’ which we will be discussing in this article.
Also known as White Spot Disease, Ichthyophthirius multifilis (Ich) in betta fish is actually quite common, easy to identify, and simple to treat.
What Is Ich?
Ich is a protozoan parasite that lives in home aquarium environments.
It can also be found in natural waters, but the problem isn’t as prominent, as there is a smaller ratio of fish per volume of water.
Ich hatches and spreads from an egg, or a ‘cyst,’ which contains hundreds to thousands of parasites that are able to rapidly spread. In the space of a fish tank, this can lead to infection in your betta very quickly, as it doesn’t take them long to find a host.
How Does Ich Affect My Betta?
In the confines of an aquarium, the individual Ich larva has a much easier time finding a host to latch onto. Hundreds of Ich parasites can find their way onto your betta’s body, gills, and fins.
Overwhelmed by this barrage of parasites, the betta can eventually die from a number of Ich-related conditions, such as respiratory distress due to Ich-invoked gill damage, or numerous punctures in the betta’s body due to Ich. These punctures can cause an osmoregulatory imbalance (salt and water balance within your betta).
Fungal and Bacterial infections taking hold in the open wounds of the fish caused by Ich is also a big concern.
What Does Ich Look Like?
The identification of Ich is fairly simple, as it resembles a sprinkling of salt or sugar on the betta. This explains why it’s also known as white spot disease.
These small white spots may be apparent anywhere on the betta’s body. They may not be spread evenly throughout, however, and can sometimes be limited to specific areas such as the gills or fins.
Does My Betta Have Ich?
Betta fish suffering from a bout of Ich may show slightly different behavioral characteristics than normal. Bettas tend to erratically zip around in the water quite rapidly when they have Ich.
As well, you may notice that your betta is deliberately trying to rub up against things like aquarium accessories or the tank’s substrate.
While I personally haven’t had Ich on my body, I can understand how uncomfortably itchy it must be for the fish, which can make them restless, irritable, and just want a good ol’ scratch!
As the condition worsens, your betta may start to show other typical signs of distress. Bettas may clamp their fins, stop eating, or appear to become lethargic and even slimy.
While these conditions aren’t specific to only betta fish suffering from Ich, they are all helpful in determining what exactly is wrong with your pet.
The Ich Life Cycle and How to Treat It in a Betta
While there are several anti-parasitic medications you can use, you have to be very careful when dosing your betta, as they are fairly delicate and can react negatively when given medication.
There are also some cases where medicines administered to betta fish are ineffective and/or not needed at all. So, make sure that you assess the situation correctly before subjecting your betta to chemicals that it may not need.
If in doubt, double-check the symptoms with an expert, such as an aquatic vet, before purchasing any medication.
To best understand how to go about treating betta Ich, getting acquainted with the basic Ich life cycle is important:
Ich Life Cycle
The first stage of this parasitic life cycle is the Trophozoite stage. In this stage, the trophozoite embeds itself into the skin of the fish, feeding on tissue cells and body fluids.
As a protective mechanism of the fish, cells are produced and formed around the trophozoite. These newly produced cells of the fish are what you eventually see as the small white spots indicative of Ich.
The second stage starts when the trophozoite transforms into a trophont. At this stage, the trophont will detach itself from the host fish, leaving behind an open wound. The trophont is then free to swim about until at last finding a safe place to settle in.
The third stage is the reproductive stage. This is when the trophont, after finding a place to settle, will produce and surround itself with a sticky wall of sorts. When the trophont does this, it’s actually forming the cyst from which hundreds, and quite often thousands, of tomites will form.
The final stage is the infectious stage. Tomites are free to swim the betta’s aquarium water until at last finding a new host to attach to and begin the entire cycle anew. Tomites that fail to find a host shortly after forming will die.
The entire Ich life cycle is dependent on certain temperature ranges. The warmer end of the parasite’s survivable temperature range will encourage growth and spreading at every stage. The colder end of the parasite’s temperature range will slow the life cycle process down at every stage.
Now, you are never going to want to keep a betta in a tank this cold, but as a baseline reference, at 64°F (18°C) the entire Ich life cycle takes between 10 to 12 days to complete.
A very interesting thing to take note of is that at 85°F (29.4°C), Ich won’t infect a new host. At 86°F (30°C), Ich will completely cease to reproduce. Finally, at 89.5°F (32°C), Ich won’t be able to survive at all.
How to Treat Ich in Your Betta
Alright, now that we have gone over the entire Ich life-cycle, we can now start to talk about getting rid of Ich!
There are several methods to treating Ich, and because we can utilize several different treatment plans, we stand a much better chance of eradicating this parasite quickly and completely.
Careful observation of your Betta during treatment is critical as there will be changes made to the environment the betta lives in. When using a particular treatment, if you notice any negative reaction with your betta, immediately stop that treatment and try a different one.
Method 1 – Heating
Heat the aquarium to 86°F (30°C).
Bettas are tropical fish and can tolerate the aquarium’s increased temperature for the purposes of Ich treatment. 86°F is the temperature at which Ich will no longer reproduce.
This increase in temperature alone, in theory, will eventually resolve the Ich problem by itself, given enough time.
When trying to achieve the 86°F mark, make sure to incrementally raise the temperature. Try to raise the temperature by no more than 1°F-2°F per hour. This can easily be done with an aquarium heater with variable temperature controls.
Once reached, you must maintain this 86°F temp for 10 days. As explained above, the complete life cycle of Ich is about 10 days, so you’ll want to give time for all parasites to die off.
The increase in temperature also speeds up and shortens the Ich life cycle. If the Ich is no longer able to reproduce, after the 10-day cycle, it won’t begin again.
Keep a very close eye on your betta during this 10-day period for any abnormal behavior or signs of distress. Keep in mind that your betta will probably be showing signs of abnormal behavior anyway due to the Ich, so judge this one carefully.
One of the other effects of increasing the aquarium’s temperature is that your betta’s physical metabolism will increase along with it. The higher temperature also gives a boost to your betta’s immune system.
With the increase in the betta’s metabolism, there will be an increase in oxygen consumed. Additionally, even in a fishless tank, as water temperature levels rise, the oxygen levels fall. This can lead to your betta suffocating.
Because of the lowered oxygen levels in the betta’s tank, increasing surface agitation of the water is necessary to increase available oxygen to the fish.
Therefore, it’s a good idea to invest in something like a bubble stone to pump air into the water, which keeps it oxygenated.
You should also keep a close eye on your betta for signs that he/she isn’t suffering from oxygen deprivation. Betta fish tend to gasp for air and primarily swim at the surface if they are having a hard time breathing.
If you see that your Betta is gasping for air, you need to increase aeration. If you have a filtered aquarium setup, you can increase aeration by lowering the water level in the tank.
With the water level lower, the filter’s water return will create more of a splash on the surface, thus increasing aeration. If you don’t have a filtered betta aquarium, you can use an air stone (aka bubble stone). The air stone should be placed near the surface of the tank’s water.
Method 2 – Partial Water Changes
Perform partial water changes daily. Changing out 25% of the water in the betta’s aquarium daily is very beneficial for multiple reasons.
It will help provide a clean and lower-stress environment for your fish to swim in while battling the parasites. By taking out and replacing some of the water daily, you will be removing some of the free-swimming parasites along the way.
Further, by adding new, clean water back into the aquarium daily, you will be adding fresh oxygen to the betta’s tank. You may also want to add a water conditioner to the water during changes.
Kordon makes a product called NovAqua+ that will simultaneously dechlorinate and condition the water while helping treat any open wounds left on the Betta caused by Ich.
It should really go without saying that you should read the directions of any additive to the aquarium thoroughly before subjecting your Betta to them, but this kind of product is highly recommended when dealing with Ich.
Lastly, concerning the 25% water changes themselves, if you notice that your Betta is becoming overly stressed because of them, you may consider cutting down on the frequency of the changes or decreasing the percentage of water that you’re switching out.
Another fairly cheap and easy way to remove some of the free swimming Ich parasites from the betta’s aquarium is to use micron-rated water filters. Diatom filters may also be used to achieve the same end.
Micron filters not only do a good job at gathering up free-floating Ich, but they also work in capturing Ich cysts as well. The first stage of free swimming Ich is the tomite. Tomites are approximately 30 microns in size. This is easily large enough for a micron filter to capture.
As you perform your daily water changes, you should also change the micron filter out with a new one.
There are micron filters available that can be reused. Filters that can be reused generally don’t perform at the same quality level as filters requiring replacement after each use. If you decide to get a reusable filter, rinse it thoroughly in very hot water.
To ensure that you have killed any of the captured Ich in the filter, you may want to boil the filter for several minutes. Remember that Ich can’t survive at temperatures of 89.5°F (32°C) and above so boiling simply removes any doubt.
Method 3 – Remove the Substrate
Remove the substrate from the aquarium.
After detaching from the host fish, the Ich (tomont stage) swims around looking for a place to settle in and start reproducing. Gravel, sand, and other substrates all make for great homes for Ich to start their family.
Temporarily removing the substrate from the aquarium limits the real estate available to the Ich.
Removing the substrate also makes siphoning the aquarium’s floor much easier. Tomonts will largely be located on the floor of the aquarium, substrate or no substrate, so siphoning it is more than recommended.
Some aquariums have live plants in their substrate that can’t be removed. Note that it’s not strictly required to remove the substrate in order to eliminate Ich.
If practical, though, removing the substrate is the best course of action. If you choose to leave it in the aquarium, spend time siphoning the substrate as thoroughly as possible.
Method 4 – Aquarium Salt
Ich parasites are sensitive to salt. Aquarium salt disrupts the regulation of fluids of the Ich. The addition of 1 teaspoon of aquarium salt for every 1 gallon of water is all you need for this purpose.
You should always premix the aquarium salt in a separate container of aquarium water before adding it to the Ich-affected tank with the betta in it. Never add raw aquarium salt directly to the Betta’s aquarium, as doing so can cause serious harm to your fish.
You can treat the aquarium with this dosage up to three times in total and these three dosages should be spaced out by 12 hours. The salt will be slowly removed as you perform your daily water changes.
An additional use for aquarium salt in treating is making a salt bath for your betta. If you have more than one betta affected by Ich, you should make individual baths for each if you determine that they’re necessary.
Aquarium salt baths have a much higher concentration of salt in them versus the addition of salt in the betta’s normal aquarium. This much higher concentration of aquarium salt can exterminate the Ich that is currently embedded in the body of the betta, by eliminating the Ich’s ability to maintain its fluid balance.
To make an aquarium salt bath for a betta fish, you need to completely dissolve 1 tablespoon of aquarium salt in 1 gallon of water that has been conditioned.
Because you will be removing your betta from its aquarium and placing it into a separate container, you need to make sure that the prepared salt bath is at the same temperature as the aquarium water.
Doing so will prevent temperature shock to your betta, which could occur by placing him into a bath that is warmer or cooler than the aquarium he previously occupied.
You must also be certain that the aquarium salt has thoroughly dissolved in the solution before placing your betta in the container.
Begin the salt bath treatment by placing the Ich-affected betta fish in a small container, which should be filled with his existing tank water, and not the salt bath mixture!
This container should be just slightly larger than the fish. Yes, this sounds small. For salt baths, though, small is what you want. If the salt bath container has to be larger, wider is better than taller, as the increased surface area of the salt bath water allows for increased oxygenation of the water. It also gives the betta a bit of wiggle room from side to side.
Slowly begin adding the aquarium salt bath mixture into the small container that the betta is occupying. Add the mixture until you see that the betta is exhibiting a mild form of stress. You likely won’t need to use all of the prepared salt before this happens.
As soon as your betta starts showing mild stress from the added mixture, stop adding it and leave your betta to soak for 30 minutes.
During this time, keep a very close eye on the behavior of the betta to ensure that he isn’t having any dangerous reactions to the treatment. Completely halt the salt bath treatment and return your betta to the original aquarium if it tries to jump out of the container or if it rolls over.
Once the 30 minutes are up, take some of the tank water out of the betta’s normal aquarium and use it to dilute the salt bath water. You want to do this gently and in stages.
After your betta has been acclimated back to the original tank water through dilution, carefully remove him from the small salt bath container and place him back into the original aquarium.
You don’t want to add any of the salt bath water to the betta’s aquarium during transfer, so it’s best to transfer him with a net or with just your hands – avoid tipping him back into the water.
After 48 hours have passed, you may repeat this salt bath treatment. This procedure can be repeated up to 3 times.
After 10 days of Ich, treatments have passed, it should all be eradicated. Your betta should also be completely healed from the effects of the treatment, and it’s vital that you keep the temperature of the aquarium at 86°F during the entire 10-day period.
Again, 86°F is the temperature at which Ich can no longer reproduce. If the temperature has fallen below that 86°F mark, you may need to start the treatment again from the beginning, which could cause a great deal of unnecessary stress on your betta.
Can You Prevent Ich?
There is a well-known myth about Ich, stating that the parasite is naturally present in all aquariums and simply lays dormant until the right time to attack. Luckily, this is simply not true.
There is, however, the possibility that a fish that is naturally resistant to Ich can carry along with it a small degree of Ich infection and exhibit no apparent symptoms of the disease.
If this Ich-resistant fish suffered some degree of stress, which in turn lowered its naturally strong Ich defense, then the infection may present itself to a full-blown degree that seemingly came out of nowhere.
While this scenario remains a possibility, Ich infections are generally brought on by the addition of a new fish in the aquarium.
It’s a sad fact that many betta fish bred on large-scale betta farms harbor Ich in their travels to pet stores. This is yet another good reason to thoroughly inspect the betta fish you’re considering bringing into your home.
Even when there are no immediately obvious signs of an Ich infection, the betta fish may still be carrying the condition with them.
Try to pay particular attention to the betta’s gills as those aren’t as likely to be checked for Ich while at the pet store.
If you’re getting tank mates for your betta or bringing home a new female betta to join a sorority, it’s a good idea to quarantine any new fish in a container separate from the other fish if possible.
The standard quarantine time for observation is about 2 weeks, but that may continue longer if you believe it’s necessary. If you’re still unsure of the possibility of a parasitic infection of the fish in quarantine, you may decide to administer anti-parasitic medications during the quarantine.
These anti-parasitic medications usually cover a broad range of typical parasites such as flukes and worms.
How Contagious Is Ich?
You may have already guessed that Ich is highly contagious and can spread very quickly between fish in your tank. It’s particularly severe when you have an overcrowded tank.
Therefore, you need to keep any sick fish or potentially infected fish away from the healthy fish in your tank before an outbreak occurs.
This is why it’s essential to first quarantine any new additions before adding them to your tank – to prevent the introduction of any external parasites to your aquarium.
Although it’s often considered to be a disease that occurs in warm water, outbreaks usually occur when water temperatures change, particularly in the spring when waters get warmer. So keeping your aquarium temperature stable can help prevent any new outbreaks.
Can Ich Kill Bettas?
If left untreated, Ich will most definitely lead to your betta’s demise. However, while this can be deadly, it doesn’t need to be.
Ich can quickly build up and become fatal, but it’s simple to treat, and if caught early enough, it’s very likely that your betta will survive.
Can Humans Catch Ich?
Humans cannot catch ich, as it’s a water-borne illness. This parasite won’t consider a human a host, and you should feel safe to treat your fish as needed without the possibility of catching the disease.
That said, when treating your fish, you should still wear gloves – not to protect you, but more so to protect your betta from the possibility of infection from bacteria in any of its open wounds.
Can Ich Come Back?
If you follow the 10-day rule we previously mentioned, then you should have eradicated ich completely from your tank. If this hasn’t been followed correctly, then there is a chance of Ich coming back.
Ich could also come back if it’s re-introduced to the tank, like if you have a new fish that hasn’t been quarantined.
Well, that’s it! Now you have everything you need to know about the treatment and prevention of Ich in your betta’s tank.
As an added bonus, studies show that fish who survive an Ich infection show partial to full immunity to any further infections. This means that once treated, it likely won’t get this bad again – but as with any illness, prevention is always better than a cure.