African Cichlid Diseases, Parasites and Treatments

Although African cichlids are not particularly sensitive to diseases, they are not invulnerable to them either. If you keep them in the wrong water conditions, it can weaken their immune system. Then, they can get infected by a range of different diseases depending on the circumstances.

The worse the water quality, the more stressful African cichlids are. This is true for pretty much every fish species that is not living in its preferred water conditions. Stress works the same way for humans as well. When we are too stressed on a daily basis, our immune system weakens and we get sick.

With regular water changes, good filtration and maybe some live plants, you can greatly reduce the chance of your African cichlids getting sick. Diet is also very important, as different species have different digestive systems.

African cichlids are omnivores so they thrive on a more diverse diet. Vegetables, pellets, flakes, frozen or live animals are all acceptable. Just make sure they are made for African cichlids if you are about to buy commercial food.

African Cichlid Diseases and Treatments

Now we are going to talk about the most common diseases that can affect your African cichlids. We are going to go through the causes, symptoms and how to treat each of them. We can recommend two commonly used medications for African cichlids right away, one of them being Octozin and the other Superfix.

While Octozin is widely used for internal diseases, you should give your fish Superfix when external diseases occur. However, these two medications won’t fix all of your problems. If you want to buy these two medications, make sure to read the description for each or call your veterinarian for advice.

Without further ado, let’s see the 9 most common diseases that can affect African cichlids.

White Spot / Ich

The White spot or Ich is a parasitic disease. If you suddenly see white spots appear on the body of your African cichlid, then it is most likely an Ich. This is an abbreviation that comes from the name of the parasite, which is Ichtyophthirius multifiliis.

It is a protozoan parasite that attacks the body, fins and gills of the cichlid. If don’t cure it in time, those white spots can spread on its whole body. The infected fish becomes lethargic and loses appetite until cured. Other symptoms include gasping for air, clamped fins and bumping into tank decor.

The White spot is a disease that spreads very fast. When you notice the white dots on one of your African cichlids, you can already suppose that the others have it as well. In that case, you have no other option but to treat the whole tank if you want the Ich to be completely gone.

Increasing the water temperature is one way to treat it, as African cichlids can withstand it for a while. You can also create a salt bath for them or pour some potassium permanganate, acriflavine or green malachite, as either of these works pretty well.

Malawi Bloat

Mbuna cichlids are usually not problematic and won’t get sick if you take good care of them. Still, many fish keepers are not aware of the fact that they are vegetarian. You can only give them plant-based food. Otherwise, they can end up having something that is called Malawi Bloat.

What characterizes herbivore species is their long digestive tract, which makes them able to digest vegetables. If you give them protein-rich food, however, you are making a huge mistake because is going to cause problems in their system.

The result is going to be a bloated stomach, loss of appetite and unusually quick breathing. African cichlids that have Malawi bloat are also quite lethargic, swimming near the substrate. They simply can’t digest meat-based protein and it damages their kidney and liver instead.

If not treated, your fish can die from Malawi bloat. It can also be caused by contaminated water so replacing at least half of it in the tank can help a lot. It is recommended to add a dosage of Octozin to the water, which is going to help them get better.

Cotton Wool Disease

The Cotton Wool disease manifests itself in a weird form which also explains its name. When you see that something fuzzy grows on the head, scales or fins of your African cichlid, then you know what is happening. The Cotton Wool is white and it looks like fungus when you first look at it.

That is because it indeed is a type of fungus that grows in home aquariums. In fact, it is probably already there in your aquarium, at least a harmless amount of it. This only becomes a problem when it starts spreading, which is facilitated by poor water quality.

It is very important to check the water quality every now and then because if you neglect it, your fish tank can become a breeding ground for diseases. For example, one way to prevent it is to remove uneaten fish food from the tank. After all, you can’t really feed your African cichlids the exact amount that they want to eat.

There will be some leftovers every now and then and you need to remove those before they start to decay. Cotton Wool disease is the result of organic debris accumulating in your  aquarium over a longer period of time. The mroe debris there is, the higher the chance of a fungal infection.

Also make sure not to keep fish species together that can hurt each other. When the water quality is not right, injured fish are likely to get affected by fungi. However, stress is also enough so make sure your African cichlids are not bulied.

Cotton Wool can go away quite fast if you treat the water with antifungal medication or just set up a salt bath.

Hole in the Head Disease

The Hole in the head – or sometimes mentioned as hexamita – is one of the more typical African cichlid diseases. It manifests itself as crater-like holes on the head of the infested fish. Like many other fish diseases, this one also causes a loss of appetite and sudden weight loss.

As the Hole in the head spreads on the cichlid’s body, lesions can appear on the side. The more it spreads, the more dangerous it becomes. Scientists still not know what the exact causes of this disease are. In most cases, there are multiple factors that are in play when fish get affected.

Poor water conditions and the lack of important minerals are two possible contributing factors. There is also the parasite called Hexamita which can do a lot of damage to your African cichlids. The combination of these is allegedly the Hole in the head disease.

Since there are multiple factors at play, the treatment for it is not so obvious. It can be tricky, as identifying the causes is pretty hard even for a veterinarian. Your best shot against Hexamita is to take all the causes into account and try to fix all of them at once.

This will require you to fix the water quality as best as you can, which depends on the needs of the African cichlids you keep in the aquarium. Then, make sure to feed them only the healthiest foods in order to help them recover. Meanwhile, use antibiotics against the Hexamita parasites and try to eliminate them that way.

If you need advice on which antibiotic to choose, make sure to call your veterinarian. This multi-faceted approach should be enough to cure the Hole in the head disease.


Dropsy is a bacterial infection that is a result of bad water conditions. When the water quality is poor, the immune system of your fish gets weaker and that is when they become vulnerable to Dropsy. This disease can actually do a lot of damage to the kidney of your African cichlid and it can lead to kidney failure.

Also, the more stressful your fish are, the higher the chance that they get Dropsy because stress weakens the immune system. Usually, if you notice the combination of protruding scales and swollen belly, then it is almost certainly Dropsy.

Fish affected by it also lose their appetite and become lazy, lethargic and slow. Taking good care of your African cichlids means that you examine them a bit every day. Once you notice something unusual, try to identify the disease. Dropsy can be identified early and then the treatment will be easier too.

If there is anything that might cause stress in the tank such as overcrowding, bullying, bad water conditions or similar then you need to find a solution to those. It is often enough to just remove these stress sources and the Dropsy is going to disappear.

For example, African cichlids are also sensitive to temperature and chemicals in the water such as ammonia. If the water pH is not right, then it can mess up the ammonia ratio as well and your fish can get sick. Whether you want to treat your fish in a hospital tank or the main one, make sure to add 1 tablespoon of aquarium salt per gallon to it.

Then, keep a close eye on your fish while providing fresh and healthy foods and changing the water on a weekly basis.

Popped Eyes

If you notice that the eyes of your African cichlid are particularly protruded, then you are most likely looking at a Popped eye disease. This means that there are harmful bacteria behind the eyes of your fish that causes them to be infected.

Identifying this is not so obvious because their eyes can bulge outwardly as a result of an injury as well. Pop eye can affect either both eyes or just a single eye. However, if you notice that more than one fish is suffering from it in your aquarium, then Popped eye is likely caused by bad water conditions.

In that case, you need to change at least 30% of the water in the tank on a daily basis until the situation gets better. Meanwhile, check the water pH as well and make sure it is consistent. If it’s just one fish, then it is best to keep it in a separate tank until the Pop eye is fully healed.

Both eyes being affected means that there is most likely a bacterial infection in the tank. In that case, you need to add Myxazin to the aquarium until your African cichlids are fully healed. Make sure to read the description on how to use it or ask your veterinarian for advice.

Gill Flukes / Gill worms

Gill flukes are caused by tiny flatworms that basically become parasites once they find some fish to settle on. These are also called Gill worms, which indicates their preferred spot on pet fish. Gill flukes can cause a lot of damage to the gill membranes of your African cichlids if not treated in time.

When the damage has been done, their gills become reddish. As a result of the injury, a coat of slime appears around the infected area as well. Gills are very important for fish because by using them, they can extract the oxygen they need out of the water.

Gill flukes make their breathing inconsistent and they eventually get to the point when they can barely get any oxygen. Since their gills are irritated, fish that are infested by these worms are usually rubbing their bodies to the stones, plants or decoration they can find in the tank.

They might even swim up to the water’s surface and try getting some fresh oxygen out of the air. Gill worms make fish gasp for air and cause their colors to gradually fade. The treatment is actually really simple, as you only need to increase the water temperature a bit and add some aquarium salt to it.

Usually, a single tablespoon of salt is enough per day but the exact amount really depends on the size of your tank.

Camallanus Worm

The Camallanus worm is actually more common in home aquariums than you might think. These little worms go straight for the intestines of tropical fish. It lives there like a parasite, sucking the blood out of the poor pet’s system.

They basically get there by drilling a hole and then anchoring to the intestines. If you observe a fish infected by Camallanus, you can usually see that the worm’s posterior is visible in the anus area. That area might also be red because the blood that gets sucked out.

When you introduce new fish to the aquarium, there is always a chance that it has Camallanus. Even if you keep the fish in a separate tank for a while, the symptoms might stay absent. When those worms are low in numbers, they prefer to hide in the gut of your fish.

If your African cichlid refuses to eat, then Camallanus is one of the possible causes. Other symptoms include bloating in the abdominal area and wasting. Shivering, shaking and swimming in one place are also not uncommon.

Now the thing is that these worms can exist in the tank without causing any problems. If your fish is kept on a healthy diet, the water is clean and there are not too many African cichlids in the aquarium, then the symptoms are not going to show.

You can easily get rid of Camallanus worms by using an anti-worm agent called Levamisole. As the worms get in contact with it, their neurotransmitters get blocked and they become inactive. Levamisole LD-50 should be added to the water in 250 milligrams per liter ratio per 24 hours.

Make sure to thoroughly clean the tank a couple of days after the treatment because those worms will end up on the substrate.


Tubercolosis is one of those serious diseases that can rapidly spread in the aquarium. If one fish in the tank gets infected, it is really hard to prevent tank mates from getting it. This one is a well-known fatal disease that has shows no mercy to aquarium fish and humans can get it as well.

It causes sores and open wounds to appear on the body of your African cichlid. If you touch them, you can get tubercolosis as well. It is a very ugly disease for fish, as their fins get frayed, their stomact slowly turns inward and they develop white blotches as well.

Meanwhile, cichlids lose their appetite and they are basically slowly dying. Tubercolosis is easy to notice because these symptoms are rather prominent. It is also noticeable that fish affected by it are lethargic. Don’t hesitate when you notice these symptoms and separate the sick ones from those that seem healthy.

Put them in two separate tanks and put melafix in the tank. The main aquarium has to be cleaned to the smallest decoration and also make sure to disinfect everything. If you need any advice, call your veterinarian right away.

How to Prevent Disease and Parasites in African Cichlids?

The best way to prevent diseases and parasites in African cichlids is to keep them on a healthy diet and by controlling the water conditions. One thing that can cause your fish to become sick is that there is an imbalance of chemicals, pH or beneficial minerals in the water.

There are even beneficial bacteria around your fish that keep them healthy. Once something is wrong with the temperature, filtration or your cleaning routine, things fall apart. Keeping these under control or even measuring them every week or two can go a long way.

Leftover foods and waste are both dangerous, as your filter cannot necessarily remove them from the tank. You need to clean the tank thoroughly every week, change the water and make sure that leftover food is removed right after your African cichlids have finished eating.

Another thing that beginner fish keepers have problems with is that they don’t feed healthy foods to their fish. Or maybe they want to feed them healthy foods but buy the wrong one in the store. The thing with African cichlids is that most of them are omnivores, meaning that they need both plant-based and meat-based foods in order to thrive.

For example, if you give a herbivore fish meat-based food or your carnivore some veggies, it is going to mess up their digestive system. And the last thing you need to take into consideration is to choose the right tank mates. If your cichlids get bullied or injured by other fish, it will make them incredibly stressed.

All that stress is going to make them vulnerable to diseases and some of them are hard to cure. It is better to keep all the aforementioned things in order and your African cichlids will be healthier than ever.

Wrap Up

African cichlids can sometimes become sick even when you do everything right. The risk is always there, all you need to do is to minimize it as best as you can. You can do it by controlling the diet, the tank conditions and by picking the right tank mates for your fish.

If you do all that, then you are always one step ahead and it becomes very unlikely that your fish will get infected by a disease. Either way, it is good to know how to treat your precious cichlids when they get sick. The treatment is rather simple for most of the diseases we talked about.

Now you know exactly how to identify them and what to do to help the situation. Once your fish is sick, then there is no time to wait because it is hard to tell how serious the situation is. The treatment has to start right away.

The first step is always to separate the African cichlid that you first notice is sick and then deal with its tank mates. If you are lucky, then you only need to treat one fish because the disease had no opportunity to spread. Hopefully, you have found this article useful and walk away with a better understanding of how African cichlid diseases work and how to treat them.

avatar Noah
I’m Noah, chief editor at VIVO Pets and the proud owner of a playful, energetic husky (Max). I’ve been a volunteer at Rex Animal Rescue for over 2 years. I love learning and writing about different animals that can be kept as pets. read more...

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