Missing the early signs of thiamine deficiency. A case associated with a liquid-only diet

Nutr Neurosci. 2020 May;23(5):384-386. doi: 10.1080/1028415X.2018.1507964. Epub 2018 Aug 9.


Background: Wernicke encephalopathy (WE) predominantly occurs in alcoholic patients. Few case reports have described this diagnosis as a result of dieting. The diagnosis is often missed or delayed resulting in permanent and severe neurologic sequelae and even death. The typical neurological signs may be absent or missed during the early stages of thiamine deficiency.

Case report: A 23-year-old female presented to the hospital with confusion, bilateral lateral rectus palsy, and ataxia. Based on the typical neurological triad, WE was suspected. The brain MRI was also typical for WE. Prompt clinical improvement was seen within days after intravenous thiamine supplementation. A detailed medical history revealed that during the past 3 months she had been following a liquid-only diet and had lost about 30 kg. During that time, she had visited the emergency department on multiple occasions due to fatigue, nausea, and vomiting.

Conclusion: A high level of suspicion is required by physicians to recognize that fatigue, nausea, and vomiting may represent early signs of thiamine deficiency in patients at risk for nutritional deficiencies. Empirical thiamine supplementation may be reasonable in such cases.

Keywords: Diagnosis; Diet; Nausea; Non-alcoholic; Thiamine; Vomiting; Weight loss; Wernicke encephalopathy.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / pathology
  • Diet / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Malnutrition / complications
  • Malnutrition / diagnosis*
  • Thiamine Deficiency / diagnosis*
  • Thiamine Deficiency / etiology
  • Wernicke Encephalopathy / diagnosis*
  • Wernicke Encephalopathy / etiology
  • Wernicke Encephalopathy / pathology
  • Young Adult