Wet brain is a form of alcohol-induced dementia caused by years of repeat and heavy drinking.
- Wet brain has a sudden onset and does not happen gradually.
- Lesions form on the brain causing obvious issues with memory and walking or seeing.
- The parts of the brain responsible for memory are permanently damaged.
- Wet brain does not happen years later to those in recovery if the drinking is stopped.
What causes wet brain?
Also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, wet brain stems from thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency usually caused by alcoholism.
- Alcohol hinders the absorption, activation and storage of thiamine.
- The brain needs thiamine to function. Thiamine helps brain cells produce energy from sugar. When levels fall too low, brain cells cannot generate enough energy to function.
- The brain develops lesions and scarring.
In rare cases, non-alcohol-related causes lead to wet brain like AIDS, advanced cancers, severe anorexia or patients whose bodies do not absorb food properly (malabsorption).
What are the symptoms of wet brain?
The initial symptoms are the most serious and last a few days or weeks, though all symptoms don’t always occur.
- Loss of muscle coordination, including the inability to walk
- Trouble seeing, including double-vision and involuntary eye movements
- In 20% of cases, loss of mental activity leads to a coma or death
After these symptoms, around 85% of those that survive later experience the following permanent symptoms:
- Short-term memory loss (inability to develop new memories)
- Long-term memory loss
- Hallucinations (visual and auditory)
People who have late-stage Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome resemble other dementia patients. While the memory difficulties may be severe, other thinking and social skills are unaffected.
- For example, individuals may carry on a coherent conversation but moments later are unable to recall that the conversation took place or with whom they spoke.
Individuals with advanced Korsakoff symptoms do not usually go to alcohol treatment centers, but instead require long-term care facilities, like nursing homes.
Is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome the same thing as wet brain?
Wet brain is a somewhat antiquated term for Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Wernicke and Korsakoff are two distinct phases of the same illness.
- Wernicke encephalopathy is the early stage symptoms, like confusion and loss of muscle coordination. Thiamine supplements can help or reduce damage, but time is of the essence.
- Korsakoff syndrome is the resulting psychosis that comes after the initial brain damage is untreated. At this stage, brain damage is permanent.
In rare cases, Korsakoff syndrome can develop with the Wernicke encephalopathy stage.
How long does wet brain last?
The duration of wet brain symptoms depends on how far the disease has progressed by the time the thiamine deficiency is treated.
- When treated in the acute stage, symptoms like confusion and problems with balance clear up in days or weeks.
However, once it progresses to a chronic condition, the neurological effects are usually permanent. According to a study from the University of Louisville, about 25% of people with Wernicke-Korsakoff require long-term care in an institution.
How common is wet brain?
Less than 2% of the population suffers from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, so the disease is rare.
Most alcoholics do not make it to the wet brain stage of alcoholism. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, other organs, like the liver, are more impacted for most people. (Learn more about early signs of liver damage).
That said, most alcoholics come to treatment deficient in thiamine. Once they stop drinking, levels return to normal.
Do I have wet brain?
While wet brain is considered a rare disease, up to 80% of alcoholics have a thiamine deficiency. This deficiency can cause brain damage outside of a full wet brain diagnosis.
Tying together rough estimates, as high as 1 in every 7 alcoholics may develop wet brain, usually between ages 30-70.
If you had Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, you would know it because the symptoms are noticeable and happen quickly.
For example, people with wet brain usually experience multiple days in a row with limited muscle movement or trouble seeing with no other explanations other than years spent drinking daily.
How is wet brain diagnosed?
There are no laboratory tests or neuroimaging procedures to confirm that a person has wet brain.
The Alzheimer’s Association warns that diagnosis can be hard to spot because of intoxication or withdrawal symptoms.
- If admitted for alcohol use, patients should be professionally screened for memory loss and cognitive change.
- If admitted for memory loss, questions about alcohol use should be included for diagnosis.
Can one night of drinking cause brain damage?
You won’t suffer permanent brain damage from one night of drinking unless you were hospitalized for an alcohol-related injury or overdose.
Overdoses happen when there’s so much alcohol in the blood that the brain has to shut down vital functions like breathing and heart rate. Not every one that survives an alcohol overdose has permanent brain damage.
Most of the permanent brain damage from alcohol, like wet brain, happens over years of continuous drinking and chronic relpase.
Can I get wet brain from beer?
Yes, all forms of alcohol can cause a thiamine deficiency, including beer. However, since the alcohol content is lower when compared to liquor and wine, it takes more to achieve the same effects.
Still, individuals vary in their susceptibility to thiamine deficiency, and for some people, it can be triggered more easily than in others.
Risk factors include:
- Daily alcohol use over many years
- Poor nutrition
Can you die from drinking alcohol every day?
Yes, it is possible for someone to die from daily drinking due to the build-up of effects on the body.
After continued abuse, the body’s organs will become damaged and start shutting down. Wet brain is just one example of the consequences of untreated alcoholism.
There is no set amount per day or length of time at which daily drinking turns deadly. Most damage is reversible until, without warning, it’s not.
How do I prevent wet brain?
The best way to prevent wet brain is to stop drinking alcohol.
Wet brain is just one very serious and very real consequence of continued drinking.
Alcoholics that are experiencing wet brain symptoms should get medical attention immediately to prevent further damage.
JourneyPure.com doctors follow rigorous sourcing guidelines and cite only trustworthy sources of information, including peer-reviewed journals, count records, academic organizations, highly regarded nonprofit organizations, government reports and their own expertise with decades in the fields and their own personal recovery.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA): “The Role of Thiamine Deficiency in Alcoholic Brain Disease”
National Organization for Rare Disorders: “Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome”
Alzheimer’s Association: “Korsakoff Syndrome”
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA): “Alcohol Facts and Statistics”
All content is for informational purposes only. No material on this site, whether from our doctors or the community, is a substitute for seeking personalized professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard advice from a qualified healthcare professional or delay seeking advice because of something you read on this website.
Do you find this answer helpful?
Tell us what you think.