What is Wet Brain and Delirium Tremens?

Monday, November 26, 2018 | By Chris Clancy

alcoholic man

Alcoholism is a progressive illness. Without proper treatment, conditions and symptoms of alcoholism will only get worse over time and may reach debilitating power. Two of the most severe consequences of long-term alcoholism are wet brain and delirium tremens (DTS.) These late-stage conditions can be scary, but by learning more about them, we can understand why they happen and what can be done to prevent them.

Let’s review what wet brain and DTS are including differences, causes, and treatments. We’ll also review what do if you’re fearful you or a loved one is experiencing or may experience one of these two afflictions.

Are Wet Brain and DTs the Same Thing?

Wet Brain and DTS are both the results of chronic alcohol abuse but they are separate conditions. We’ll get into the individual differences between the two later but it’s important to know DTS and wet brain are separate conditions with different causes, treatments, and prognosis.

Wet Brain

What is Wet Brain?

Wet brain is the nickname for a condition known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Wernicke-Korsakoff is a progressive degeneration of brain matter due to chronic alcohol abuse and more specifically a deficiency of Vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency. 1-2% of the general US population suffers from wet brain.

Wet brain is a combination of two conditions – Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Wernicke’s encephalopathy is caused by lesions on the nervous system, specifically on the thalamus and hypothalamus. Korsakoff’s psychosis is the permanent result of Wernicke’s encephalopathy and can include memory loss, confusion, and other cognitive problems. The two conditions will steal memories and cognitive function from the sufferer until they’re a shell of their former self.

Causes of Wet Brain

Alcoholics are often malnourished, and the reasons are two-fold. First, late-stage alcoholics typically maintain a poor diet by eating less than their body needs or by eating a diet of low-nutrient junk foods. Secondly, chronic alcohol abuse affects your body’s ability to absorb thiamine, can deplete thiamine reserves in the liver and can block an enzyme that helps activate the vitamin.

Thiamine is necessary, but not naturally occurring in the body. If you have trouble getting thiamine to your system through diet or can’t absorb the thiamine you do get, you’re going to have severe problems like wet brain and muscle loss.  

alcoholic woman

Symptoms of Wet Brain

Because wet brain affects the thalamus and hypothalamus, symptoms can affect both cognitive and physiological function.

  • Confusion
  • Memory loss – Wet brain affects the thalamus and hypothalamus, which help process and store memories. Legions on these structures can cause permanent memory problems if treatment isn’t sought promptly.
  • Lack of coordination
  • Decreased muscle mass – Thiamine also aids in muscle development. Deficiencies will cause muscle loss and muscle weakness
  • Coma
  • Death

Treatment of Wet Brain

Wet brain is treatable, but the encephalopathy cannot be reversed. Doctors will prescribe thiamine supplements to help counteract the progression of wet brain. Supplements can help relieve symptoms of wet brain like lack of coordination, rapid eye movements, twitches, and other issues. Wet brain sufferers must quit alcohol to stop the progression of the disease.

Getting Help for Wet Brain

Damage resulting from wet brain cannot be reversed, but anyone suffering the condition is encouraged to stop drinking immediately. You will need to visit a medical professional to look for signs of wet brain. A doctor may prescribe thiamine, other supplements, and encourage habits to help reduce progression. Unfortunately, alcoholics suffering from wet brain are likely to be suffering from other health issues.

What is Delirium Tremens?

Delirium tremens is a state of psychosis induced by alcohol withdrawal. Alcoholism is not just a weakness of willpower – it’s a chemical dependency. Chronic alcoholics have rewired their brain’s chemistry to operate while soaked in booze. When the booze is taken away the alcoholic brain begins to panic. Since the brain is chemically dependent on alcohol it will go haywire as neurons fire haphazardly and your natural brain pathways break down.

The withdrawing brain can create several symptoms including severe symptoms. In some situations, withdrawal can be severe enough to bring about DTS. The longer the person has abused alcohol the more likely they will experience DTS. Approximately 20,000 alcoholics suffer from DTS yearly.

Symptoms of Delirium Tremens

Symptoms of DTS can incur anywhere from a few hours to a few days after alcohol consumption is stopped. The most severe symptoms including symptoms directly related to DTS like hallucinations can occur 24 to 48 hours after the last drink.

  • Elevated heart rate
  • Rapid shallow breathing
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Psychosis – Patients report both auditory and visual hallucinations including snakes, bug, and evil entities.
  • Agitation and Excitement
  • Seizures
  • Heart Attack
  • Coma
  • Death
  • Delirium tremens is fatal. Chances of the condition resulting in death are decreased dramatically when DTS is treated.

Getting Help for DTS

DTS survival rates increase dramatically when the condition is treated through supervised medical care. Doctors will be able to monitor the patient and prescribe medications and supplements as necessary. Treatment may involve barbiturates, benzodiazepines, a myriad of vitamins and minerals, and even medically-induced coma when necessary.

If you fear that you or a loved one may suffer DTS during alcohol withdrawal you must seek treatment at a certified medical detox or treatment facility. In a treatment facility, doctors can get a proper history and address any withdrawal issues through clinically-research methods. However, the symptoms of DTS are jarring and uncomfortable even under supervised care.

Other Differences Between Wet Brain and DTS

The onset of wet brain and DTS occur differently. DTS results from alcohol withdrawal. If the alcoholic drinks continuously and doesn’t allow for withdrawal, they won’t suffer DTS. Wet brain does not depend on withdrawal from alcohol but can onset at any point in an alcoholic’s drinking career. Both conditions are caused by chronic alcohol abuse, but you can know when to expect DTS, but not always wet brain.

DTS and wet brain are both alarming symptoms of chronic alcohol abuse but two separate issues. If you or a loved one is suffering from either you need to reach out to a medical or treatment professional immediately.

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