Wet Brain from Alcohol: Signs, Symptoms, and Recovery

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Last Edited: October 3, 2020
Madison Kimberlin
Clinically Reviewed
Edward Jamison, MS, CAP, ICADC, LADC
All of the information on this page has been reviewed and certified by an addiction professional.

What is Wet Brain?

Wet brain is a form of alcohol brain damage that results from repeat and heavy exposure to alcohol. Also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, wet brain stems from a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. Thiamine is an essential vitamin in the body that doesn’t occur naturally. A person must ingest it to achieve their daily recommended amount. The amount of thiamine in a person’s system diminishes as a result of a poor diet, which oftentimes occurs in people who regularly abuse alcohol.

On top of that, Alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to absorb thiamine. It also reduces the amount of thiamine the liver stores and disrupts the enzyme that activates the vitamin. Once a thiamine deficiency reaches a certain level, brain damage starts to occur.

Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome or wet brain carries many symptoms common to ongoing abuse such as Alcohol memory loss and coordination problems. However, it can have many more detrimental side-effects if not treated immediately. If you suspect you or someone you love has developed this condition, you need to educate yourself. Below is a detailed look at wet brain including its causes, symptoms, and treatment.

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How Do You Get Wet Brain? This Should Scare You.

The primary reason for developing Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome is a lack of thiamine (also referred to as vitamin B1). It’s important to understand that a vitamin B1 deficiency can occur for a number of reasons. A poor diet, diabetes, anorexia, and even pregnancy can cause it. However, there’s a strong link between Alcohol and thiamine deficiency.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the primary social factor that leads to having Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome is chronic exposure to Alcohol. While short-term Alcohol abuse or occasional binge drinking won’t cause wet brain, forming a dependency could lead to a reduction in thiamine.

Alcohol causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines. When this happens, thiamine isn’t properly absorbed into the body. In addition, many people get wet brain from drinking Alcohol when their lifestyle deteriorates and they stop eating a balanced diet or taking vitamin supplements. If this goes on for too long, brain damage can occur.

Drinking disrupts neurotransmitters that send messages throughout the body. This is how Alcohol affects the brain directly. However, a thiamine deficiency can also interfere with the production of chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. This means that anyone who drinks on a regular basis can potentially develop the syndrome and experience  Wernicke Korsakoff disease symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms

Wet brain signs and symptoms are important to know if a person wants to avoid the issue. The onset of Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome may be hard to recognize, as many of the symptoms are similar to regular short-term Alcohol abuse or binge drinking. Wet brain disease can lead to a severe brain disorder, so it’s important to seek professional help once the symptoms start occurring.

What does wet brain mean? When a person starts to develop wet brain from Alcohol, symptoms will differ depending on what stage they’re in. There are two main stages – Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis.

Symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy include:

  • Cognitive decline
  • Confusion
  • Lack of coordination, often causing changes in a person’s gait.
  • Shakiness, especially in the legs
  • Double vision
  • Unusual eye movements
  • Coma

Many of these symptoms are similar to those associated with Alcohol withdrawal. In severe cases, these side-effects can even lead to death, especially if brain swelling from Alcohol poisoning occurs. Symptoms of the second stage, Korsakoff’s psychosis, can be extremely frightening. Remember, this is a brain disease caused by Alcohol, which means there’s a potential for psychological damage.

Symptoms of Korsakoff’s psychosis include:

  • Memory loss
  • Audio or visual hallucinations
  • Trouble forming new memories
  • Making up things due to memory loss

If you’re asking yourself, “How long does it take to get wet brain?“, the answer is that it all depends on the level of Alcohol consumption and a person’s routine. Someone who drinks every day could develop it in as little as one to two weeks. However, it could take much longer. For instance, if a person is drinking regularly but continuing to eat a balanced diet and take vitamins, they may not develop it for months. It all depends on when the thiamine deficiency starts to affect the brain.

Can You Reverse Wet Brain?

Treating wet brain is a relatively easy process. It’s simply a matter of increasing and maintaining levels of thiamine. A doctor can administer an intravenous injection of vitamin B1 for extreme cases. They’ll also recommend an appropriate amount of oral supplements to help increase levels. If the deficiency is a result of Alcohol abuse, the patient will need to seek professional treatment.

However, the longer a person lives with Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome, the higher the chances of serious health issues. These issues may never go away completely. Does Alcohol cause permanent brain damage? Absolutely. But, what does Alcohol damage in your brain?

Long term brain damage from Alcohol occurs when the hippocampus region undergoes deterioration from long-term drinking. This region of the brain is responsible for the creation of memories. Alcohol and permanent brain damage are also connected because drinking destroys brain cells.

If a person is drinking every day or binge drinking on a regular basis, they’re killing a large number of cells each time. Unfortunately, if wet brain isn’t treated in time, some of the effects may be irreversible. If a person has an addiction to Alcohol and brain damage occurs, they may experience permanent memory loss, problems with cognition, or dementia.

Can You Die From Wet Brain?

Alcohol is a serious health concern in the U.S. According to the CDC statistics on Alcohol, 22,246 fatalities occurred as a result of Alcohol-related liver disease in 2017 alone. And that’s just one way Alcohol can damage the body. With this in mind, you may be thinking, “Is wet brain fatal as well?” The answer is yes, untreated wet brain can lead to death.

During the final stages of wet brain, also called Korsakoff’s psychosis, a person has sustained massive thiamine deficiency. This means that wet brain progression has been allowed to occur for an extended period of time, thus killing brain cells and causing irreversible brain damage. An individual in this state is susceptible to seizures, stroke, coma, or premature death.

With advanced wet brain, life expectancy will depend on several factors. These include how extensive the brain damage is, how much treatment the patient is getting, and other health issues. In many instances, a wet brain death won’t occur right away. An individual may survive for years after brain damage occurs. However, they’ll experience deteriorating conditions due to the extreme loss of brain cells.

As harmful as Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome is, preventing it is rather easy. The best way to prevent wet brain is to maintain healthy thiamine levels. This may sound easy enough, but damage to the brain of a person with Alcohol addiction is often a result of wet brain. In many cases, the individual simply doesn’t realize the harm they’re doing.

The effects of Alcohol abuse on the brain are extremely damaging. Prevention of Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome requires immediate intervention before the condition is allowed to advance. If you suspect a loved one has a problem, it’s important you understand the most common Alcohol dependence syndrome signs and symptoms. These include the following physical and medical signs of Alcoholism:

  • Alcohol intoxication on a regular basis
  • Shakiness
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Memory loss
  • A shabby appearance
  • Depression
  • Mood swings

You may also notice signs of heavy drinking such as consuming more Alcohol than everyone else or blacking out. A person may also start to neglect their responsibilities as a result of frequent hangovers. If you notice these signs, you must act fast before the effects of Alcohol abuse become dangerous.

Dementia Caused by Alcohol Abuse

Dementia is usually associated with old age or Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the rate of dementia disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of all cases. However, drinking Alcohol can also cause it. Alcohol-related dementia occurs when extensive brain damage causes things like memory loss and cognitive disability.

But is wet brain a type of dementia? The answer is yes. However, it doesn’t start to occur until a person reaches the second stage of Wernicke Korsakoff syndrome. Once they’ve reached this stage, they may start to exhibit signs of Alcohol dementia, some of which could be permanent.

Dementia causes a person to lose a certain amount of cognitive functionality. This could include memory loss and the deterioration of motor skills. Depending on the extent of wet brain, some of these skills may never return.

What are the signs of Alcohol dementia?

  • A reduction in mental activity
  • Confusion
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Memory loss
  • Coordination issues
  • Uncontrollable eye movements
  • Confabulation (making up stories)
  • Hallucinations

If you or someone you love is experiencing any of these symptoms, wet brain may have advanced to the second stage. Seek medical help right away. You’ll then need to enter a substance abuse treatment facility to detox from Alcohol dependency and begin either an inpatient or outpatient program.