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A to Z: Beriberi

May also be called: Thiamine Deficiency; Vitamin B1 Deficiency

Beriberi (BAIR-ee-BAIR-ee) is a disease caused by a lack of thiamine (vitamin B1) that mainly affects the cardiovascular and nervous systems.

More to Know

Thiamine, also called vitamin B1, is an essential nutrient involved in muscle and nervous system functioning, breaking down carbohydrates, and producing acids necessary for proper digestion. Thiamine can be found in foods such as meats, dairy products, whole grains, vegetables, beans, and nuts.

Too little thiamine in the body can lead to beriberi. The main types of beriberi are:

  • Dry beriberi, which affects the nervous system. Symptoms include vomiting, seizures, muscle weakness, loss of muscle function in the legs, and mental confusion.
  • Wet beriberi, which affects the cardiovascular system. Symptoms include shortness of breath, swelling of the lower legs, rapid heart rate, and chest pain.

Beriberi is most commonly associated with people who abuse alcohol and those whose diet consists mainly of refined white rice. In rare cases, new mothers who lack sufficient thiamine can pass beriberi on to breastfeeding infants.

If it's not treated, beriberi can lead to heart failure, coma, psychosis, and death. Fortunately, beriberi is rare in developed countries, where most foods are enriched with vitamins.

Beriberi is treated with thiamine supplements that can be swallowed or injected.

Keep in Mind

Anyone who eats a healthy diet should get enough thiamine. For those who do develop beriberi, prompt treatment usually brings quick improvement and can reverse damage to the heart and nervous system. If treatment is delayed, however, some damage can become permanent, so a doctor should be consulted as soon as symptoms start.

All A to Z dictionary entries are regularly reviewed by KidsHealth medical experts.

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