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How to treat ammonia poisoning in fish effectively

Can fish recover from ammonia poisoning? Yes they can. How to treat ammonia poisoning in fish 🐟 is thus a critical skill to any aquarium hobbyists incase of such eventualities.

Now, are you setting up an aquarium for your new pet fish? Well, you are right on time to learn about the risky ammonia poisoning in fish. It is one of the greatest killers of fish in aquariums. In-fact, it probably is pet fish number one killer.

Don’t get it wrong, ammonia can and do occur in in established tanks.

The challenge with ammonia in water as with other toxic compounds is it’s invisible. As a result, close and regular monitoring is an essential aquarium care management requirement. Failure to do this, you’ll miss it at buildup stage and only to notice it by its effects later.

how to treat ammonia poisoning in fish

How to treat ammonia poisoning in fish is therefore one of the skills to master. You don’t know just when it could occur. This will help you eliminate this lethal risk and potential fatality of your lovely pet(s).

Basics before learning how to treat ammonia poisoning in fish:

Before delving in how and why ammonia is toxic, let’s first discuss the source of ammonia.

What is ammonia?

An explaining note first; Nitrogenous compounds are a metabolism by-product of all animals, fish included. This is also true with all biotic materials.

Basically therefore, ammonia is a toxic nitrogenous waste from protein breakdown by fish excreted into the water.

Concentration however defers in aquariums, ponds and in the wild habitats.

Unlike in large water bodies, aquariums will experience ammonia toxicity because of limitation in water volume.

Large water volume easily dilutes ammonia deposits. This eases its subsequent easy incorporation to the nitrogen cycle.

Thereafter, detoxification is easy by the beneficial bacteria naturally.

As you read on further down, you’ll learn what level of ammonia is toxic to fish?

Source of ammonia in a new tank:

When setting up a new tank, be informed that your aquarium will first go through a process known as cycling. This is basically a process where the aquarium environment naturally builds bacteria colonies.

These are referred to as beneficial bacteria. They are useful for “eating” fish waste as well as other related nitrogenous compounds in the tank.   

During this tank’s nitrogen cycling stage, ammonia buildup is more rapid than the establishment of the bacteria colonies.

Well, this experience “New tank syndrome” is not purely just in your new aquarium only. It is also in other environments including;

  • In an isolation/quarantine tank where curative bath treatments are administered. This will happen because:
  • the tank has had no time to fully cycle
  • The curative chemicals (for example formalin) used kills the beneficial bacteria
  • When you are shipping it whether during relocation or from the stores in a shipping bag/container waters.

A simple explanation of “New tank syndrome”: A set of challenges in a new tank set-up stage. Here, the invisible and toxic compounds are building up and as the filters are maturing.

Source of ammonia in an established tank:

Where does ammonia come from in an established mature tank? This must be the big question especially if your tank is past the cycling stage.

Well, there are several sources. Luckily however, they are all preventable and can be corrected if traces of ammonia in water are noticed. These include:

  • Overstocking of fish in your tank. This increases the waste depositing in the tank. Subsequently, this leads to excess bioload. Eventual result is overpowering of biological filters. This leads to their incapacitation to effectively compensate.
  • Firstly, uneaten foods as a result of overfeeding. Secondly, un-cleaned fish waste and any other matter (including dead fish). Theirdecay in the tank will cause ammonia spike in the water.

This is perhaps the most common of what causes ammonia in water.

For the love of your pet, you may be an overfeeding victim too.

  • Fish will also deposit ammonia as a byproduct out of their normal biological body functioning (explained hereabove).

This is through metabolism from protein building by the body. Subsequently, ammonia the byproduct will be excreted to the tank through the fish gills.

  • Addition of chlorinated tap water to the tank especially during water change. Ammonia bonded chlorine forms chloramine. That’s a popular and stable water disinfectant.
  • Cleaning of filters with waters that wash-off the accumulated beneficial bacteria colonies. Always mildly wash your tank’s filters with water from the matured aquarium. In addition, return some of the old carbon to the filter.
  • Another reason for ammonia spike in the tank is extensive death of algae. This will not only increase decaying matter in the tank but also reduce the algae population. These are very vital in absorbing ammonia.

An advance heads-up is that, algae in the aquarium reduce when:

  • Temperatures extensively reduce, say like in winter. Why? Because the metabolism of bacteria and algae declines. Likewise, their numbers too.
  • Addition of treatment antibiotics into the tank. These will kill the bacteria in the water and filters. Subsequently, ammonia level surges.

Always be conscious of all the above causes. As a result, you’re at an informed position to know how to lower ammonium levels in fish tank naturally. It’s easier preventing and less costly than curing.

What should ammonia level be in fish tank?

The answer to your question on what is the healthy normal level of ammonia in water is very simple. It should be NIL parts per million (0 PPM).

Any trace of ammonia in water is an automatic indication of;

  • Inadequate and insufficient biological filtration,
  • An overload in the tank; a case of either overstocked tank or overfeeding hence excess uneaten foods decay.

Another note is that ammonia levels are highest and lowest at water outflow and inflow points respectively.

Symptoms of ammonia poisoning in fish:

Well, just because you know that fish can recover from ammonia poisoning, don’t risk getting there. However, knowing effects of ammonia on fish will help you decode the symptoms early and precisely. Hopefully, you do it in good time to rescue the fish. The effect is both on the internal and external organs.

In addition, ammonia poisoning fish can happen gradually over a period of time. It however can still be near sudden.

The signs to watch out for include:

  • You’ll notice gasping for air. It will be swimming near the water surface making what looks like gasps.
  • Decreased appetite and a lot uneaten foods. Further, failing metabolic functioning increases inability to efficiently extract energy from feeds. Therefore, you’ll have a lethargic fish in place of your lively vibrant pet.
  • Reddening of the gills to a bleeding-like state.
  • Sustained exposure and increase of ammonia in water will lead to severe wearing-off of body tissues. The ammonia burn is characterized by bloody patches. In addition, conspicuous red streaks on the body as well as on the fin edges will show.

Besides, the fins may exhibit folding-up.

If you don’t arrest the situation on time, the poisoning effects will spread to all other critical internal organs. Among those critical organs badly affected are the brain and sadly the nervous system.

This stage ultimately culminates in the eventual death of the fish.

A guide on how to treat ammonia poisoning in fish:

Doing regular water tests ensures that you pet fish is in safe quality waters. The liquid tests have been proven to have higher accuracy compared to the strip tests.

Nonetheless, a standard test kit will still do the job. You don’t have to wait for debilitating ammonia toxicity signs in fish.

Always remember that both ammonia and nitrite MUST always be at 0 PPM. Therefore, if you note any recording of this toxic compound, start treatment there and then.

Treatment is both for the fish and the water.

Guiding steps to safely treat aquarium water:
  • Determine the ammonia toxicity as per ammonia pH scale reading. Thereafter, do a water change of about 40% – 50% immediately. However, ensure the water is of the same temperature as the tank’s water.

In addition, alongside the water change, lower the aquarium’s water pH. This is very effective in giving a relief effect on the fish. There are many effective ammonia neutralizer chemicals to control pH in pet stores.

Further, you may consider several water changes in quick short intervals. However, this is if you consider the poisoning severe. All these are aimed at getting the ammonia levels to NIL readings in the shortest time possible.

In-fact, in that stressing poor quality aquarium water, the fish has no appetite. It’s actually suffering lethargy and dormancy.

As a result, adding foods into the tank will only worsen the situation. They’ll remain in the tank un-eaten and start decaying.  This subsequently adds more of ammonia toxicity.

Can fish recover from ammonia poisoning? Here are steps to safely treat ammonia burn in fish:

Remember we answered with an emphatic yes to the query, “can fish recover from ammonia poisoning?”

But as earlier explained in detail, toxic levels in water are detrimental to fish. Ammonia chemical will burn the eyes, gills, fins and generally the whole skin.

However, ammonia level may also not be as high. Nonetheless, its presence in water still has consequences. It causes mucus generation increase on the skin.

Subsequently, this slime membrane covers the gills through which the fish breathe. The effect is your fish’s labored breathing.

Extensive ammonia burn on the skin and other organs exposes the fish to opportunistic bacterial infections.

So, how do you treat the fish?

  • You should first quarantine the fish. This enables you to administer treatment in Isolation.

While improving the water quality, DON’T treat the fish in the main tank. You’ll ignite new tank syndrome run. As explained earlier, the treatment chemicals will kill the beneficial bacteria needed to breakdown the ammonia.  

  • Consulted with your veterinary doctor. Thereafter, administer regulatory approved antibacterial and antibiotics treatments. Only administer ammonia burn treatment as prescribed.

In addition, you can all add aquarium salts in the treatment baths. These are effective in increasing response to treatment. In addition, they provide a good soothing relief effect on the fish.

To heal fish, the treatment administration should be continued for 72 – 120 Hrs (normal estimated recovery time) or till it resumes normal feeding. The earlier of the two is just fine.


How to treat ammonia poisoning in fish is a critical thing to any fish keeper. This is to both the experienced or beginners. Equally critical to know is how to remove ammonia from water.

Once in a while, this unpleasant occurrence will challenge you.

Most importantly however is to know how to maintain water quality in the tank. It’s the only guarantee you have on how to cure ammonia poisoning either on the water or fish.

In short, this will ensure a healthy ecosystem for your pet fish.

Give you pet fish a safe haven.

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