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Beriberi: Signs and Symptoms of Thiamine Deficiency You Need to Know

Medically reviewed by Mae Charisse Antalan, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Ira Sagad · Updated Dec 29, 2022

Beriberi: Signs and Symptoms of Thiamine Deficiency You Need to Know

If you do not have enough thiamine (vitamin B1), you may develop a disorder called beriberi. This is a serious condition, and in severe cases, it can lead to lasting damage to the nervous system and heart. There are two main types of beriberi: wet beriberi and dry beriberi. While wet beriberi primarily affects the cardiovascular system, dry beriberi mainly affects the nervous system. Beriberi symptoms vary depending on which type you have. 

People who abuse alcohol and those whose diets consist of mostly refined white rice are most likely to suffer from beriberi. Mothers who do not get enough thiamine during pregnancy may also pass beriberi to their breastfeeding infant.

In rare cases, beriberi may be hereditary. This condition can be passed down from generation to generation and renders those with hereditary beriberi incapable of absorbing thiamine from their meals. When this happens, beriberi is often missed by healthcare providers because beriberi does not normally occur in people who are not alcoholics.

Signs & Symptoms

Beriberi Symptoms

Berberi symptoms depend on what kind of beriberi is affecting the person — “wet” or “dry.” But no matter which kind you have, beriberi is a serious condition and you should seek medical attention immediately if you notice these beriberi symptoms.

Wet beriberi symptoms include:

  • Breathing problems
  • An increase in heart rate 
  • Swollen legs (possibly causing a limp)
  • Above normal body temperature

Dry beriberi symptoms include:

  • Difficulty in walking 
  • Trouble feeling your fingers or toes 
  • Leg paralysis 
  • Confused mental state 
  • Difficulties in speech 
  • Body aches
  • Vomiting

Other beriberi symptoms include:

  • Walking in an unusual manner 
  • A tingling or burning sensation in the limbs
  • Swelling of feet 
  • Difficulty recalling things
  • Abnormal eye movements 
  • Droopy eyelids
  • Seizures
  • Loss of consciousness

Risks & Complications

Risk Factors

Beriberi symptoms in adults often develop in people who drink alcohol excessively or have a diet with not enough thiamine. In some cases, it is also hereditary. Risk factors for beriberi include: 

  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Dialysis treatment
  • A diet with insufficient thiamine
  • Excessive use of diuretics
  • Having relatives with a history of beriberi

Beriberi is also more likely to affect:


When beriberi symptoms are treated, patients usually improve quickly. But when left untreated, beriberi is a deadly disease. Complications of beriberi include:

  • Heart failure
  • Serious mental disturbances (delirium)
  • Losing touch with reality (psychosis)
  • Limb paralysis
  • Fatigue and weakness caused by severe chronic illness (cachexia)

Damage that occurs to the heart is usually reversible. However, if the patient has already suffered acute heart failure, treatment might not be effective. 

If caught early, damage to the nervous system can also be reversed. But even when treated, some beriberi symptoms (e.g., memory loss) may persist.


What Is the Cause of Thiamine Deficiency? 

A lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine) in the body is the cause of beriberi. This thiamine deficiency is often a result of chronic alcohol consumption, as alcohol interferes with thiamine absorption in the body. Here are some of the causes of thiamine deficiency:

  • A mother who doesn’t get enough thiamine from her diet, or an infant fed on formula that doesn’t contain thiamine might also develop beriberi. 
  • There is also a possibility of beriberi developing in people whose diet contains fish that produce an enzyme that inactivates thiamine.
  • Beriberi can be hereditary. People who inherit beriberi lose the ability to absorb thiamine from food over time.
  • Dialysis patients and people who take high dosages of diuretics are also at risk for beriberi as these can cause a thiamine deficiency.

Treatment & Prevention


The treatment for beriberi aims to provide your body with the thiamine it is lacking and alleviate any beriberi symptoms.

The first line of treatment for beriberi is thiamine supplements. These supplements have been proven to be effective in treating beriberi. 

Patients with severe cases of beriberi will require intravenous thiamine. A blood test will be done once a week to determine if their body is absorbing the vitamin.

Other types of vitamins may also be recommended by your healthcare provider.

It is possible to repeat blood tests after the treatment has begun. Your response to the medicine will be determined by these tests.

An individual with normal kidney function is not harmed by high concentrations of thiamine. There are no reports of toxicity from thiamine even in critically ill patients taking the recommended dosages.


Preventing beriberi symptoms requires a diet rich in vitamins. Eating food such as beans, whole grains, nuts, meat, dairy, spinach and asparagus can significantly increase thiamine in the body. 

Nursing mothers need to consume adequate amounts of vitamins to maintain their health and allow for the production of breastmilk. If your child is not breastfeeding, ensure that your child’s infant formula contains thiamine.

Finally, you should consider cutting down on alcohol or quitting if you are a heavy drinker. Additionally, take B vitamins to enhance your body’s absorption and storage of thiamine.


Beriberi is a condition caused by a lack of thiamine in the body. This is a serious disease that can cause breathing problems, heart problems and cognitive problems. If not treated right away, it may lead to heart failure. Beriberi is common in individuals who drink alcohol constantly. And in some cases, it may also be hereditary. It can also occur in infants not receiving enough thiamine or pregnant women with poor nutrition. 

Learn more about Healthy Eating here.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Mae Charisse Antalan, MD

General Practitioner

Written by Ira Sagad · Updated Dec 29, 2022

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