UMEM Educational Pearls

Wernicke encephalopathy (WE) is a neurologic disorder secondary to prolonged thiamine deficiency; it is characterized by confusion, ataxia, and ocular abnormalities. 

Traditional medical teaching advises against the administration of glucose (or glucose containing fluid) in thiamine deficient patients, without first giving thiamine, as this may precipitate WE. 

This teaching is problematic, however, in hypoglycemic patients who require the immediate administration of glucose while simultaneously being suspected of thiamine deficiency (e.g., malnourished alcoholics). Delays in treating hypoglycemia may be more harmful (e.g., seizures, permanent neurologic deficits, etc.) than the risk of WE.

Schabelman et. al performed a literature search to unearth the origins of this teaching. Nineteen papers related to this topic were found consisting of case reports, animal studies, and expert opinion; there were no randomized trials, cohort studies, or case-control studies.

Bottom-line: The available evidence does not support withholding glucose treatment until thiamine can be administered and educators should consider abolishing this dogmatic teaching until better evidence is available.


Schabelman, et al. Glucose before thiamine for Wernicke encephalopathy: a literature review. J Emerg Med. 2012 Apr; 42(4): 488-94

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