Beriberi is a type of deficiency disease that is caused due to the lack of vitamin B1, also known as thiamine. The word ‘beriberi’ comes from a Sinhalese phrase “I cannot, I cannot” signifying the condition of the body to perform any bodily functions once the neurons are completely damaged or suffering from polyneuritis (i.e. inflammation of the neurons) due to extreme thiamine deficiency. Also, Read: Vitamin B1 – Functions, Food Sources, Deficiencies and Toxicity

Beriberi is extremely prevalent in people having white rice as a staple, having poor dietary choices, suffering from alcoholism, chronic diarrhea, dialysis, or those who are undertaking high doses of diuretics. Beriberi might also occur sometimes due to rare genetic conditions.

beri beri ailment

Beriberi is of four types which are Dry Beriberi, Wet Beriberi, Gastrointestinal Beriberi and Infantile Beriberi each of which has their own signs and symptoms depending upon the part of the body they are affecting.

It can also cause brain damage causing Wernicke's encephalopathy, which damages the thalamus and hypothalamus regions of the brain and Korsakoff's syndrome, which causes permanent damage to the part of the brain that helps in storing brain i.e. the hippocampus region.


The symptoms of Beriberi varies depending upon the type of Beriberi. The 3 different types of beriberi observed in thiamine deficient patients, which are:

Dry Beriberi:

This deficiency syndrome causes wasting and partial paralysis and is characterized by:

  • nerve and muscle abnormalities
  • numbness of hand and feet
  • leg cramps
  • muscle atrophy
  • a prickling sensation in the toes
  • a burning sensation in the feet at night
  • mental confusion
  • vomiting

Dry beriberi occurs in two forms of brain damage which are Korsakoff syndrome and Wernicke encephalopathy.

Wernicke encephalopathy is characterized by:

  • memory loss
  • loss of muscle coordination
  • confusion
  • visual problems such as rapid eye movement and double vision

Korsakoff syndrome shows symptoms such as:

  • loss of memory
  • hallucinations
  • inability to form new memories

Wet Beriberi:

This deficiency syndrome weakens the capillaries and mostly affects the cardiovascular system and causes:

  • vasodilation
  • increased heart rate
  • dyspnoea
  • oedema (i.e. leg swelling)
  • shortness of breath
  • elevated jugular venous pressure
  • dilated cardiomyopathy

Gastrointestinal Beriberi:

This type of deficiency mostly cause abdominal pain and is characterized by symptoms like:

  • abdominal pain
  • cramps
  • vomiting
  • nausea
  • lactic acidosis

Infantile Beriberi:

Affecting mostly children between two to six months and can be characterized by symptoms like:

Diagnosis and Treatment

Beriberi is usually diagnosed by a doctor by performing a series of blood and urine tests and acknowledging the patient's past medical history. A person suffering from thiamine deficiency has a lower concentration of thiamine in the blood and a higher concentration of it in the urine.

The doctor might also perform a thorough physical examination to check for any neurological damage, loss of sensation, loss of coordination, weakened reflexes and inability to walk to straight.

Apart from this, he may also perform a thorough check-up of the heart, breathing rate and any pain and swelling in the hands and feet.

Beriberi can easily be treated by taking thiamine supplements orally or through injections as prescribed by the doctor. If treated on time, beriberi can easily be cured and the underlying health problems can also be treated.

One can also prevent this deficiency by following a well-balanced diet enriched with foods containing vitamin B1 like nuts, seeds, legumes, green veggies, dairy products, whole grains, fish and meat. Also Read: 5 must-have components for a well-balanced diet