Wet brain is a form of alcohol related brain damage (ARBD). It can also be referred to as alcohol related dementia. It’s one of the most common forms of ARBD and its technical term is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS).

It’s caused by a serious deficiency in vitamin B1 (thiamine). This is because alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to absorb vitamin B1. 

That being said, it’s a potential result of long-term alcohol use disorder, or alcoholism. In fact, research indicates that 10 to 24% of all dementia cases are caused by ARBD. This means that alcoholics or recovering alcoholics need to take it very seriously.

For instance, members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) will be very familiar with the concept as it’s prominently mentioned in the literature.   

What Are The Symptoms of Wet Brain? 

Wet brain has two phases: 

  1. Acute stage (also known as Wernicke’s encephalopathy). This stage can be stopped if caught in time. 
  2. Chronic stage (also known as Korsakoff’s psychosis). This stage can only be managed or treated. Ultimately, it is incurable and irreversible. 

The first stage does not always progress into the second stage. In some cases, both stages can even begin at the same time. However, this doesn’t happen frequently.

The most common progression is for the acute stage to happen first. Following that, anywhere from 80 to 90% of people who continue to struggle with alcohol use disorder will develop the second stage.

Symptoms of Stage 1

There are three classic symptoms for the acute stage:

  1. Mental confusion and impairment
  2. Loss of muscle coordination and staggering
  3. Double vision or abnormal and uncontrollable eye movements

Symptoms of Stage 2

If the person continues to abuse alcohol, they’ll likely progress to the chronic stage. This may happen even if the first set of symptoms are resolved: 

  1. Memory loss and the inability to make new memories
  2. Inability to learn new information
  3. Moderate to severe hallucinations

What Does Wet Brain Feel Like?

If left untreated, wet brain can absolutely destroy a person’s mind and body. As far as what wet brain feels like, the following are some of the characteristics: 

  1. Lack of awareness – This is a recurring theme in people who suffer from these forms of dementia. They don’t realize that their perception has changed. Instead, they think that everyone and everything around them has changed. 
  2. Constant confusion – Short-term memory is almost completely destroyed. This means that the patient’s sense of time will be deeply damaged. 
  3. Inability to anticipate their own needs – This also means that they have difficulty understanding their own body signals. This includes hunger, thirst, or even the need to use the restroom. 
  4. Personality changes – Most patients respond to dementia and confusion with aggressive behavior. In fact, it’s not uncommon for patients with wet brain to lash out at caregivers or health workers. People who were once calm and easygoing can become impulsive, impatient and combative. 

Finally, if the second stage develops, then full-blown hallucinations may set in. This means that the patient will hear or see things that don’t exist. Plus, they’ll make things up to fill the gaps in their memory. This is also known as confabulation. They don’t see this as lying—it appears as if they actually believe what they’re saying. 

How Long Does It Take to Get Wet Brain? 

Wet brain is not only caused by alcohol use disorder. In fact, anyone with severe vitamin B1 deficiency can technically develop the condition. Chronic alcohol abuse is just the most common cause. 

That being said, there’s no telling when an alcoholic will develop the disorder. It usually takes years or even decades of chronic alcohol abuse. However, each case is different and there’s no reliable way to tell when the condition will set in.

There are several factors that may speed up the deterioration. They include: 

  1. Level and severity of alcohol abuse. In other words, people who drink more and for longer will develop it faster.
  2. The person’s metabolism. For some people, alcohol will cause more damage to the body and metabolism.
  3. Diet and nutritional intake. If the alcoholic neglects their nutrition, it’s more likely that they won’t get enough vitamin B1. This means they’ll develop the condition sooner. 
  4. Stomach or digestive issues. If the person has chronic vomiting, then it’s more likely that they’ll lose vital nutrients before they can be absorbed.

Because there’s no telling when it will develop, it’s important to treat alcohol use disorder as soon as possible. 

Finally, it’s important to know that the second (chronic) stage has a sudden onset. It does not come on gradually. In fact, it can be triggered by a large dose of sugar in someone with a vitamin B1 deficiency. So, if an alcoholic is chronically malnourished, then it’s especially dangerous for them to consume sugary foods or drinks. 

For example, there are cases of the condition being triggered by a glucose drip while undernourished alcoholics are getting medical treatment. That’s why it’s always important to honestly communicate your alcohol use to any medical professional. Don’t be afraid of being judged—alcohol use disorder is a disease and it requires medical treatment. 

Who Is Most At Risk of Developing Wet Brain? 

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), about 200,000 people suffer from wet brain in the United States. However, it’s likely that the actual number is higher. This is because a lot of poor, uninsured or homeless alcoholics don’t seek medical treatment. In fact, it’s estimated that 80% of people with an alcohol use disorder have some level of vitamin B1 deficiency. 

Let’s take a moment to examine who is at most at risk of developing wet brain:

  1. Males are more likely than females.
  2. Anyone in the age group of 30 to 70 years old.
  3. Active alcoholics or anyone who began drinking early in life.
  4. Anyone with poor diet or nutrition.
  5. Uninsured alcoholics or anyone with poor medical care.
  6. People with a history of alcoholism in their family.
  7. Patients who were exposed to alcohol while in the womb.

As you can see, there are plenty of factors that increase the risk of developing the condition. At the end of the day, early diagnosis is key.

Is Wet Brain Fatal?

Yes, it can be. Let’s break down the two most common possibilities: 

  1. The condition leads to death in 10 to 20% of cases.
  2. Brain damage occurs in 70 to 75% of cases.

In the fatal cases, the patient first falls into a coma and then dies.

Is Wet Brain Reversible?

Yes, but it depends on when the condition is diagnosed.

In other words, if caught early enough (during the first phase), then it is possible that vitamin B1 injections can reverse some or even most of the damage. In some cases, there may even be a full recovery. 

However, once the patient reaches the second stage, the damage becomes irreversible.

Depending on the severity of the brain damage, some patients will need to have round-the-clock care. This is done by caregivers who may need to do everything for the patient. This is why it’s so important to always seek treatment for alcohol abuse.  

Treatment for Wet Brain

The treatment is pretty simple. It consists of two basic parts:

  1. Getting regular injections of vitamin B1.
  2. Not drinking any alcohol whatsoever. 

Number 2 is absolutely crucial. The alcoholic must stop drinking in order for the condition to stop developing. Otherwise, they’ll just keep getting worse. This means they’ll either die or suffer permanent brain damage and fall deeper into psychosis and dementia.

For a chronic alcoholic, not drinking alcohol will likely be extra difficult. If they could easily stop drinking, then they would have done it years ago. This means they’ll probably need help to stop drinking completely.

This kind of help can be obtained through medical detox, inpatient or outpatient rehab, support groups (Alcoholics Anonymous), and even medications. 

Getting Help With Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol is the most widely abused drug in the United States. In fact, according to the National Survey on Drug Use & Health from 2015, over 15 million adults struggle with alcohol abuse and dependence. That’s over 6% of the 18 and older age bracket.

But you don’t have to be one of the statistics, you can beat this! It just takes some help and compassion. You can get the help you need by enrolling in a quality treatment center.

If you need help in finding a quality treatment center near you, browse through our directory for a list of options either near you, or anywhere of your choosing nationwide.

Sources:

  1. Alcohol Related Dementia (ARD).
  2. Alcohol Related Dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.
  3. Alcoholic Dementia – Overview & Case Presentations.
  4. Palliative and end of life care for people with alcohol related brain damage.
  5. Primary alcoholic dementia and alcohol-related dementia.
  6. Alcohol and Dementia.
  7. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
  8. (ARBD) Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis.
  9. Alcoholics Anonymous – Chapter 1. 
  10. National Survey on Drug Use & Health from 2015.

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