Wet brain is a form of alcohol-induced dementia caused by years of repeat and heavy drinking.
- Wet brain happens suddenly.
- The issues with memory, walking and seeing are noticeable.
- The parts of the brain responsible for memory are permanently damaged if not treated immediately.
- Wet brain only happens if actively drinking, not to those in recovery.
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.
What are the symptoms of wet brain?
The initial symptoms are obvious and last a few days or weeks. All symptoms don’t always occur.
- Severe confusion
- 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 surviving patients experience the following permanent symptoms:
- Short-term memory loss (inability to develop new memories)
- Long-term memory loss
- Hallucinations (visual and auditory)
Does drinking cause dementia?
People with late-stage, alcohol-induced wet brain (Korsakoff syndrome) resemble other dementia patients. In fact, around 25% of those diagnosed with wet brain require long-term care facilities, like nursing homes.
While the memory difficulties are usually severe with wet brain, 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.
Is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome the same thing as wet brain?
Wet brain is a “street” 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 skipping the Wernicke Encephalopathy phase.
What is the treatment for wet brain?
When treated in the acute stage, symptoms like confusion and problems with balance can clear up in days or weeks. It depends on how far the disease progressed by the time the thiamine deficiency is treated.
The more days that pass without treatment or with continued drinking, the more likely the damage will be permanent.
How common is wet brain?
Less than 2% of the population suffers from wet brain, so the disease is considered 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 or pancreas, are more likely to give out first. (See early signs of liver damage).
Do I have wet brain?
If you had Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (wet brain), you would know something was wrong because the symptoms are noticeable and happen quickly.
For example, people with wet brain experience multiple days in a row with limited muscle movement or trouble seeing with no other explanation other than years of daily drinking.
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.
Wet Brain Diagnosis
There are no laboratory tests or neuroimaging procedures to confirm that a person has wet brain. A diagnosis comes from symptoms and confirmation of heavy, daily drinking.
The Alzheimer’s Association warns that diagnosis can be complicated because of intense 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 I get wet brain from beer?
Yes, all forms of alcohol cause a thiamine deficiency, including beer.
People vary in their susceptibility to thiamine deficiency. For some people, it’s triggered more easily than others.
Risk factors include:
- Daily alcohol use over many years
- Poor nutrition
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 everyone that survives an alcohol overdose has permanent brain damage.
Most permanent brain damage from alcohol, like wet brain, happens over years of continuous drinking and chronic relapse.
Can you die from drinking alcohol every day?
Yes, 261 people die from excessive drinking every day in this county.
If you’re exceeding the CDC recommendation of no more than one drink per day for men and two drinks per day for women, then you are at risk.
Daily alcohol drinking beyond these limits eventually causes permanent damage to the following organs until one or more 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 alcohol-related 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 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.
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