Beriberi is rare in the United States because most foods are now vitamin enriched. If you eat a normal, healthy diet, you should get enough thiamine. Today, beriberi occurs mostly in patients who abuse alcohol. Drinking heavily can lead to poor nutrition, and excess alcohol makes it harder for the body to absorb and store thiamine.
A rare condition known as genetic beriberi is inherited (passed down through families). People with genetic beriberi lose the ability to absorb thiamine from foods. This can happen slowly over time and symptoms occur when the person is an adult. However, because doctors may not consider beriberi in nonalcoholics, this diagnosis is often missed.
Beriberi can occur in breast-fed infants when the mother's body is lacking in thiamine. The condition can also affect infants who are fed unusual formulas that don't have enough thiamine.
Getting dialysis and taking high doses of diuretics raise your risk of beriberi.
Symptoms of dry beriberi include:
Loss of feeling (sensation) in hands and feet
Loss of muscle function or paralysis of the lower legs
Difficulty breathing with neck veins that stick out
Fluid in the lungs
Swelling in both lower legs
A person with late-stage beriberi may be confused or have memory loss and delusions. The person may be less able to sense vibrations.
A neurological exam may show signs of:
Changes in the walk
Drooping of the eyelids
The following tests may be done:
Blood tests to measure the amount of thiamine in the blood
Urine tests to see if thiamine is passing through the urine
The goal of treatment is to replace the thiamine your body is lacking. This is done with thiamine supplements. Thiamine supplements are given through a shot (injection) or taken by mouth.
Other types of vitamins may also be recommended.
Blood tests may be done after you are given thiamine supplements to see how well you are responding to the medicine.
Untreated, beriberi is often deadly. With treatment, symptoms usually improve quickly.
Heart damage is usually reversible, and a full recovery is expected. However, if acute heart failure has already occurred, the outlook is poor.
Nervous system damage is also reversible, if caught early. If it is not caught early, some symptoms (such as memory loss) may remain even with treatment.
If a patient with Wernicke's encephalopathy receives thiamine replacement, language problems, unusual eye movements, and walking difficulties may go away. However, Korsakoff syndrome (or Korsakoff psychosis) tends to develop as Wernicke's symptoms go away.
Beriberi is extremely rare in the United States. However, if you feel your family's diet is inadequate or poorly balanced, and you or your children have any symptoms of beriberi, call your health care provider.
Eating a proper diet that is rich in thiamine and other vitamins will prevent beriberi. Nursing mothers should make sure that their diet contains all vitamins and be sure that infant formulas contain thiamine.
People who drink heavily should try to cut down or quit, and take B vitamins to make sure their body is properly absorbing and storing thiamine.
Sachdev HPS, Shah D. Vitamin B complex deficiency and excess. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap46.
So YT, Simon RP. Deficiency diseases of the nervous system. In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, eds. Bradley’s Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 57.
Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.