Beriberi: Symptoms of Thiamine Deficiency in the Body

Beriberi is a pathology that can affect many parts of the body and cause severe complications. Fortunately, people can prevent its onset by making simple dietary changes.
Beriberi: Symptoms of Thiamine Deficiency in the Body

Last update: 27 May, 2022

The body needs vitamins to function properly, and the lack of these compounds in the body can trigger the appearance of many different conditions. Beriberi is a condition that appears as a result of vitamin B1 deficiency, which can be fatal if not treated in time.

Vitamin B1 or thiamine is a compound that belongs to the B complex vitamins. This substance plays a fundamental role both in obtaining energy from carbohydrates and in muscle contraction.

Beriberi can affect the cardiovascular and nervous systems. Children in underdeveloped countries are very prone to this condition.

Symptoms of beriberi

The main symptoms of a vitamin B1 deficiency will depend on how the disease develops. Generally speaking, there are 3 types of beriberi and each one affects different organs or ages.

1. Wet beriberi

This form of manifestation affects the cardiovascular system. In fact, studies show that wet beriberi is capable of causing congestive heart failure.

The main symptom suffered by people with wet beriberi is edema of the lower limbs. The edema is usually soft, depressible, non-painful, and without redness.

In addition, it can affect the entire body in the most severe cases. Other common clinical manifestations of this form of presentation include the following:

  • Palpitations
  • Increased heart rate
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chronic fatigue or sudden tiredness
Swollen legs due to beriberi.
The wet form of the disorder occurs with fluid accumulation in the body in the form of edema.

2. Dry beriberi

The symptoms of dry beriberi are related to the nervous system. This form of presentation is capable of causing a degeneration of the nerves, and people can develop muscle atrophy and loss of reflexes.

Other frequently reported clinical manifestations are as follows:

  • A loss of sensation in the affected limbs
  • Generalized pain
  • Decreased muscle tone
  • Paralysis of the legs
  • Confusion
  • Vomiting

Read also: 7 Potential Causes of Congestive Heart Failure

3. Infantile beriberi

Infantile beriberi tends to affect children between 2 and 6 months of age. The pathology appears due to insufficient thiamine intake through breast milk.

Infants develop dyspnea and cyanosis in the acute phase. In addition, they may develop heart failure.

In addition, babies often have aphonia in the chronic phase. When this occurs, the child tries to cry, but doesn’t emit any sound.

Causes of the disorder

The main cause of this pathology is an insufficient supply of thiamine through the diet or systemic alterations that prevent its absorption. Beriberi is a very rare pathology in developed countries, since most commercially available foods are fortified with vitamin B1.

Multiple studies show that the population most at risk are chronic alcoholics. Alcohol can alter the functioning of the gastrointestinal system and prevent the correct absorption of the thiamine present in food. There’s also a genetic condition that prevents the absorption of thiamine, causing genetic beriberi.

Other groups at high risk of developing beriberi include the following:

  • People whose main source of food is rice and milled cereals.
  • The elderly.
  • Patients with HIV/AIDS, diabetes, or hyperthyroidism.
  • People who have undergone bariatric surgery.
  • Pregnant women with abundant diarrhea and vomiting.

Possible consequences

Complications or consequences of beriberi arise when the initial symptoms aren’t treated in a timely fashion, and there’ll be damage to the affected organs. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is the most severe central nervous system complication.

Studies show that the syndrome in question encompasses two different pathologies: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s syndrome. Wernicke’s encephalopathy damages certain regions of the brain, – more specifically the thalamus and hypothalamus – and can cause the following symptoms:

  • Memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Visual problems
  • A loss of muscle coordination

Korsakoff’s encephalopathy, on the other hand, permanently damages the area of the brain related to memory. In this sense, the main symptom presented is retrograde or anterograde amnesia.

You may be interested in the following article: An Overview of the Different Types of Amnesia

Treatment of beriberi

The aim of beriberi treatment is to increase the concentration of thiamine in the body. In this regard, doctors will prescribe administration of the vitamin exogenously, through tablets or injections.

People should have blood tests periodically throughout the treatment in order to monitor thiamine levels. Doses of vitamin B1 should be tapered as blood levels approach normality.

Possible complications of vitamin B1 deficiency should be treated symptomatically. Fortunately, damage to the heart and peripheral nerves is usually reversible.

Food to prevent beriberi.
Foods rich in vitamin B1 are varied, but some countries fortify commercial flours and milk with the nutrient.


The best way to prevent the onset of beriberi is to increase the intake of foods rich in thiamine. The recommended daily intake of vitamin B1 for men is 1.2 milligrams, while for women it’s 1.1 milligrams.

People should increase their intake of the following products:

  • Red meat
  • Nuts and dried fruits
  • Yogurt
  • Grains and legumes
  • Dairy products
  • Fish and seafood

In addition to this, mothers should ensure that their infants’ formula milk contains adequate levels of thiamine. This can be done simply by checking the label in detail and reading all the components of the product.

Beriberi: a rare and deadly disease

The incidence of beriberi worldwide is low because most commercially available foods are fortified with thiamine. However, some people, such as chronic alcoholics, are more likely to develop the disorder.

Symptoms of beriberi affect both the heart and the nervous system, and irreversible damage can occur if not treated promptly. In this sense, it’s important to seek specialized medical assistance as soon as possible if you have indicative symptoms.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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  • Lei Y, Zheng MH, Huang W, Zhang J et al. Wet beriberi with multiple organ failure remarkably reversed by thiamine administration: A case report and literature review. Medicine (Baltimore). 2018 Mar;97(9):e0010.
  • Wiley KD, Gupta M. Vitamin B1 Thiamine Deficiency. 2021 Jun 21. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan–.
  • Whitfield KC, Bourassa MW, Adamolekun B, Bergeron G et al. Thiamine deficiency disorders: diagnosis, prevalence, and a roadmap for global control programs. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2018 Oct;1430(1):3-43.
  • Akhouri S, Kuhn J, Newton EJ. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. 2021 Jul 18. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan–.
  • Wilson RB. Pathophysiology, prevention, and treatment of beriberi after gastric surgery. Nutr Rev. 2020 Dec 1;78(12):1015-1029.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.