Alcohol use and addiction can inflict considerable physical and psychological harm. People who fail to receive proper care for alcoholism are at risk for organ damage, certain types of cancer, co-occurring mental health disorders, and a variety of other negative outcomes. Untreated alcoholism can also cause a condition called wet brain syndrome. If a person doesn’t treat this disorder in a timely manner, wet brain in alcoholics can be a source of irreversible damage.
What is Wet Brain Syndrome?
Wet brain syndrome, or simply “wet brain,” is the common term for Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Wet brain syndrome is also sometimes called alcoholic brain disease.
As described by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome occurs in two stages:
- Wernicke’s encephalopathy
- Korsakoff’s amnesic syndrome
Both stages of wet brain syndrome involve impaired brain functioning. Wernicke’s encephalopathy primarily affects cognition and coordination. Korsakoff’s amnesic syndrome impacts how a person forms and retrieves memories.
How is Alcohol Abuse Connected to Wet Brain?
A lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine) causes wet brain syndrome. Thiamine is one of several substances that help the body convert food into energy.
The human body does not produce thiamine naturally. This means that people need to get thiamine by eating certain foods, such as pork, fish, bread, and soybeans. A person may also take thiamine supplements.
One of the many detrimental effects of long-term alcohol abuse is that it diminishes the body’s ability to absorb certain essential nutrients, including thiamine. Some sources estimate that as many as 80% of people who develop alcohol use disorder (alcoholism) suffer from thiamine deficiency. Therefore, wet brain in alcoholics is a direct result of an insufficient amount of thiamine.
Signs & Symptoms of Wet Brain Syndrome
The initial signs and symptoms of wet brain syndrome can be difficult to detect. Over time, the symptoms will become more noticeable and more severe. Eventually, the effects of untreated wet brain in alcoholics can become catastrophic.
Symptoms of the first stage of wet brain may include:
- Impaired coordination
- Difficulty walking or maintaining balance
- Low blood pressure
- Hypothermia (lowered body temperature)
- Double vision and other problems related to eyesight
When a person progresses to the second stage of wet brain syndrome, they may experience signs and symptoms such as:
- Impaired short-term memory, including the inability to learn new information and form new memories
- Gaps in long-term memory
- Making up stories to fill in memory gaps
People who develop wet brain syndrome may not notice that they are experiencing these symptoms. If you observe signs and symptoms of wet brain syndrome in someone that you care about, please urge them to make an appointment with their family doctor or another qualified healthcare provider. People with wet brain symptoms are likely to also need treatment for alcohol use disorder.
Can the Effects of Wet Brain Syndrome Be Reversed?
The effectiveness of treatment for wet brain syndrome depends on how early they identify this disorder. Medical professionals can usually treat symptoms that occur during the first stage of wet brain syndrome, Wernicke’s encephalopathy. If a person gets help while they are dealing with Wernicke’s encephalopathy, the effects of wet brain disorder can often be reversed.
However, if a person does not receive the proper care before they advance to the second stage of this disease, their prognosis is likely to be less optimistic. Healthcare experts have not yet identified a way to successfully treat the effects of Korsakoff’s amnesic syndrome.
Anyone who has wet brain syndrome, alcoholism, or both should seek immediate medical attention.
How is Wet Brain Syndrome Treated?
Treatment for wet brain syndrome may involve several components, including thiamine replacement, nutrition and hydration services, and treatment for alcohol use disorder. If a person gets treatment for wet brain syndrome while they are still in the first stage of this disorder, thiamine replacement may be able to reverse the symptoms that they have been experiencing.
Medical facilities that treat wet brain syndrome may initially provide patients with high-dose thiamine therapy via intravenous (IV) injections. Medical staff typically administer thiamine via injection at the outset of wet brain treatment. This is because chronic alcohol abuse can prevent the body’s digestive system from absorbing thiamine from food or supplements.
Since alcoholism can cause malnutrition, many people who receive treatment for wet brain syndrome also need nutrition and hydration services. Proper nutrition and hydration can be essential elements of a plan to help people begin to heal from the ravages of long-term alcohol abuse.
Once a person has stabilized and begun to heal from the effects of thiamine deficiency, they can take part in alcoholism treatment.
Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder
Depending on each person’s unique circumstances, treatment for alcohol use disorder may involve several types of therapy as well as certain prescription medications.
Medication can keep people safe while they complete alcohol withdrawal. In particularly severe cases of alcoholism, trying to stop drinking without professional help can be both uncomfortable and dangerous. When a person completes withdrawal in a reputable detox program, they benefit from the care and supervision of a team of experts.
After a person has completed alcohol detox, they can transition into the therapeutic part of their treatment. Individual, group, and family therapy are among the many services that can help people achieve a healthy future that no longer includes alcohol abuse.
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