Beriberi

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is beriberi?

Beriberi is a disease caused by a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine) in the body. Although beriberi can occur in anyone who is poorly nourished, it is very rare in the United States due to the addition of vitamins to many of the foods we eat.

The most common cause of beriberi in the United States is alcoholism. Heavy alcohol use can inhibit the body’s ability to absorb thiamine, leading to a deficiency. Rarely, beriberi can be inherited. Inherited beriberi creates a dysfunction in a person’s ability to take up and use thiamine. Beriberi can also sometimes be found in nursing infants whose mothers’ diets are inadequate in thiamine and in formula-fed infants whose formula is inadequate in thiamine.

Beriberi generally affects the cardiovascular system (known as wet beriberi) or the nervous system (known as dry beriberi). Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a brain disorder caused by thiamine deficiency that results in a number of neurologic symptoms and can lead to psychosis, confusion and hallucinations.

While many of the symptoms of beriberi are reversible if treated promptly, delayed treatment may result in permanent complications and may become life threatening.

Beriberi, as are other vitamin deficiencies, is a serious condition that should be treated promptly. Delayed treatment of beriberi may result in permanent complications or death. If you exhibit symptoms of beriberi, or feel that your diet may be providing inadequate amounts of thiamine, s eek prompt medical care.

What are the symptoms of beriberi?

Symptoms of beriberi will vary depending on the system that is affected (cardiovascular or nervous system). Many of the symptoms of beriberi are reversible if prompt medical attention and treatment are sought.

Common symptoms of dry beriberi

You may experience symptoms of dry beriberi daily or just once in a while. At times any of these symptoms can be severe:

Common symptoms of wet beriberi

You may experience symptoms of wet beriberi daily or just once in a while. At times any of these symptoms can be severe:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

If left untreated, beriberi is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition. If you, or someone you are with, have any of the above-listed symptoms of beriberi, or have experienced unexplained weight loss, seek prompt medical care.

What causes beriberi?

Beriberi is caused by a lack of thiamine in the body. This lack of thiamine can be due to a lack of thiamine intake into the body or to an inability of the body to use the thiamine. Because many foods in developed countries are supplemented with vitamins, a lack of thiamine intake sufficient to cause beriberi is very rare in the United States. Rather, beriberi is more commonly caused by the body’s inability to use the thiamine. This can be due to excessive alcohol use or poisoning, or it may be caused by a rare hereditary disorder.

What are the risk factors for beriberi?

Beriberi is not common in the United States or other developed countries. However, certain risk factors may increase the likelihood of developing this rare disease. Not all people with risk factors will get beriberi. Risk factors for beriberi include:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Dialysis treatments
  • Eating a diet low in thiamine
  • Frequent and high doses of diuretics
  • Gastric bypass surgery
  • Tube-feeding (total parenteral nutrition)

Reducing your risk of beriberi

Although it is very rare in developed countries, you may further reduce your risk of developing beriberi by:

  • Maintaining a balanced diet
  • Reducing or eliminating alcohol intake
  • Taking vitamin supplements

    How is beriberi treated?

    Treatment for beriberi should be supervised by a health care professional. The basic treatment for beriberi is to bring thiamine levels in the body back to within normal range. This is accomplished through the administration of oral or injectable thiamine supplements. Additional vitamin supplements may also be recommended. If beriberi is treated promptly, most symptoms of the disease will be reversed.

    What are the potential complications of beriberi?

    Beriberi is a serious condition that can lead to severe complications and become life threatening. However, if proper treatment is sought promptly, many, although not all, of the symptoms of beriberi may be reversed. If treatment is delayed, symptoms may become permanent. Therefore, you should seek treatment immediately if you exhibit any of the symptoms associated with beriberi or believe that your or your child’s diet is providing inadequate amounts of thiamine or other vitamins. Once treatment is sought, you can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of beriberi include:

    • Chronic pain or discomfort
    • Congestive heart failure (deterioration of the heart’s ability to pump blood)
    • Loss of mobility
    • Neurological problems, such as memory loss, confusion, and encephalitis
    • Psychotic episodes
    • Unconsciousness and coma
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    Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
    Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 18
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    THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
    1. Beriberi. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001379/.
    2. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001776/
    3. Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012.