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How to Treat Swim Bladder Disease in Aquarium Fish

Writen By
Carol M. [Fisheries Consultant]

You may be wondering why your fish swim on their side at the tank’s top. Why are some fish struggling to balance and even reach food? Well, these symptoms indicate swim bladder disease. The infection causes stress to your fish, and they lack appetite.

In a nutshell, the fish becomes thin and malnourished since they can’t feed. Delayed treatment of the disease leads to a weak immune system, and fish contracts other diseases. So, how can you identify the disease in your fish? What are the treatment methods? Let's find out more about swim bladder disease in this article.

What is a Swim Bladder?

A swim bladder is an organ filled with gas in the dorsal coelomic cavity of fish. Another name for swim bladder is buoyancy organ, air bladder, and it's present in most bony fish. The organ contains gas and helps fish maintain their depth without floating upward or sinking. 

swim bladder
Image Credit: iStock Photos

Again, the air bladder acts as a resonating chamber to produce or receive sound (communication). In other fish, like lungfish, the buoyancy organ contains oil instead of air. However, some fish like bottom-dwelling, deep-sea bony fish, and all cartilaginous such as shark, ray lack a swim bladder. Other swim bladder functions are oxygen storage and respiration (goldfish, koi, and catfish).

What’s a Swim Bladder Disease?

A healthy fish can inflate or deflate the air bladder and keep the appropriate level of buoyancy. However, a sick fish will lose the ability to control its buoyancy. Therefore, a swim bladder disease term means the inability of a fish to hold itself upright or maintain its position in the water column. Swim bladder disease is more of a syndrome since any injury, illness, or situation that makes a fish swim abnormally is called air bladder disease.

Symptoms of the Swim Bladder Disease

The symptoms of a swim bladder disease are easy to spot. So, ensure you look out for the following signs in your fish:

  • Trouble Swimming

The typical sign of a swim bladder disease is the inability of the fish to stay buoyant. You will spot your fish laying on a substrate or floating on water.

  • Lopsided Swimming

Fish start swimming lopsidedly as the swim bladder problems make it hard to stay upright.

  • Distended Belly

The fish presents with swollen belly due to the disease. The swelling may also occur due to constipation or overfeeding. However,  if, along with the symptom, you notice pineconing in betta's scales, this is dropsy. 

  • Lethargy

Your fish may fail to move due to swollen belly, causing buoyancy issues. However, this symptom alone can't prove it's a swim bladder disease; it could result from an infection.

  • Lack of appetite

Your fish will lose appetite entirely or may have trouble eating. For example, the fish may be stuck at the bottom or top of the tank and can’t reach the food.

Causes of the Swim Bladder Disease

Various factors lead to buoyancy disorder in your fish. These root causes include:

  1. Heredity

Some newborn and newly-hatched fish aren't able to swim at the surface. The disorder mainly occurs in the livebearers like guppies which may be genetic or developmental. There is nothing you can do to fries with this disorder; the best recommendation is euthanasia.

Fries can inherit the abnormality from their parental stock. Again, healthy stock can still produce fries with deformities, especially if diet or aquarium conditions aren't favorable. 

  1. Breeding Deformities

The air bladder can get deformed during the breeding process, especially in fancy goldfish and betta. These fish swims correctly when healthy, but they become severely affected when constipation or injuries occur. The fancy goldfish are more susceptible to the disorder; thus, you should monitor them carefully. As a fish keeper, ensure you feed your fish with a fiber-rich diet. Keep them away from aggressive tank mates.

  1. Shock

Sudden change or exposure to environmental factors can make your fish stressed. Such fish will present symptoms of swim bladder disease like swimming poorly or at odd angles. For instance, if you add cold water to a tropical aquarium, you will shock your fish. So, a sudden change in temperature or light can result in shock.

Again, if the tank temperatures drop below 78 degrees F, your fish will likely have swim bladder syndrome. Water temperatures are below the ideal; the fish digestive system becomes slow. The fish suffers from constipation, and their organs start swelling.

  1. Physical Damage

Species that are aggressive and engage in territorial disputes are susceptible to swim bladder injuries. It's best as a fish keeper to watch out for your fish and separate them from aggressive tankmates.

  1. Parasitic Worms

Parasitic worms can infect your aquarium fish though they tend not to cause too much harm. However, in extreme cases, the worms inside the gut can affect the fish and prevent them from swimming well. So, it's best to control the parasites early before causing too much harm to your fish.

  1. Bacterial Infection

A bacterial infection can lead to a swim bladder disorder. The infection, along with parasites, occurs due to poor water. If your fish are suffering from a bacterial infection, they will present buoyancy issues along with other symptoms. The best remedy is to treat the infection as early as possible to prevent severe death cases.

  1. Overfeeding

Most swim bladder issues result from overfeeding. Some fish species may be gutty and will never stop feeding. The results of overfeeding are constipation, and this affects the air bladder. Again, overfeeding leads to fat buildup in the bladder.

As the fish feeds, they can also gulp too much air. The issue mainly affects the species that feed on the surface, like beta and goldfish. Gulping air can as well affect the air bladder in your fish.

How to Treat Swim Bladder Disease

Treatment methods for swim bladder disease depend on the causing factors. That's why it's necessary to understand the root cause for an appropriate remedy. The treatment methods are as follows;

  • Use an Epsom salt bath if your fish has constipation. You should mix one tablespoon of Epsom salt with a half-gallon of water in an aquarium. Leave your fish in the bath for around 10-15 minutes, and constipation should clear.
  • Let your fish fast for three days if the issue is overfeeding. Move your fish into another aquarium and raise the temperatures to 80 degrees F. The high temperatures will speed up the digestion process and empty the fish system.
  • For bacterial infection, you should move the sick fish to a quarantine tank—next, start dosing the aquarium with 3rd generation yellow powder. Follow the instructions correctly on the container as you monitor your fish. Though for a severe infection, the chances for your fish may be bleak. Always treat your fish with the appropriate antibiotic on time and follow the instructions.
  • If you think your fish have shock, it’s best to turn off the rights and regulate the water temperature accordingly.

How to Prevent Swim Bladder Disease

Prevention is always better than cure. So, to prevent the swim bladder syndrome, its best you follow the following;

  • Use high-quality food- it's the best way to prevent constipation. Low-quality food contains more air leading to constipation.
  • Avoid overfeeding your fish.
  • Maintain high water quality by changing the water regularly, vacuuming gravel, and removing algae. The nitrite levels should be ammonia.
  • Maintain constant water temperature to avoid shock.
  • Get rid of any objects causing injuries to the fish
  • Keep away aggressive fish that cause injuries to others through fights.


The common factors that lead to swim bladder disease are overfeeding, injuries, shock, and constipation. These factors cut across all the three species, goldfish, guy, and betta. As a fish keeper, you should thus avoid overfeeding, protect your fish from injuries, regulate their environmental conditions, and use quality feed. Of importance, observe high water quality, as this prevents swim bladder diseases and other infections. 

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HI, I'M Carol M.
Fisheries Consultant
I'm a passionate fisheries consultant with over 5 years of experience in the aquaculture sector. I have been practicing the skills in offering extension services, teaching learners on aquaculture practices and economic empowerment. In my leisure time, I love researching and writing articles on the niche, offering guidance in fish rearing and also watching fish related documentaries.
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