University of Wisconsin–Madison Medical College of Wisconsin

Identification of Wernicke Encephalopathy in a Patient Presenting With Altered Mental Status and Dehydration

Leilani Hernandez, MPH; Taylor Brockman, BS; Tej Mehta, MD

WMJ. 2022;121(1):e10-e14

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Introduction: Providing glucose before thiamine can cause or exacerbate Wernicke encephalopathy, a potentially life-threatening condition associated with a variety of neurological impairments.

Case Presentation: An emaciated, middle-aged woman with a longstanding history of alcohol abuse and an undifferentiated seizure disorder presented to a local emergency department with altered mental status of unknown duration. Initial labs showed signs of acute kidney injury and she could not tolerate oral intake. Overnight, dextrose-containing maintenance fluids were started. The next day, she had an acute deterioration of mental status. Empiric therapy for Wernicke encephalopathy was begun, resulting in resolution of most of her symptoms over a matter of days.

Discussion: It is generally recommended to administer thiamine treatment prior to glucose in patients with suspected thiamine deficiency. The Caine criteria can assist in the decision to start empiric treatment to prevent delays in thiamine therapy.

Conclusion: Wernicke encephalopathy is a disease with high morbidity that is usually treated with the generally benign therapy of thiamine. Given the risk of harm of untreated Wernicke encephalopathy and the benign nature of treatment, clinicians should have a low threshold to provide thiamine therapy.

Author Affiliations: Internal Medicine, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Hernandez, Brockman, Mehta); Interventional Radiology, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland (Mehta).
Corresponding Author: Leilani Hernandez, MPH, 8701 W Watertown Plank Rd, Milwaukee, WI 53226; email; ORCID ID 0000-0002-0153-6451.
Funding/Support: None declared.
Financial Disclosures: None declared.
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