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This article is the authors’ final published version in Journal of Medical Case Reports, Volume 17, Issue 32, February 2023.

The published version is available at Copyright © The Author(s).

Publication made possible in part by support from the Jefferson Open Access Fund


Background: Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome is a neuropsychiatric disorder caused by thiamine deficiency composed of two related disorders accounting for an acute presentation and chronic progression. Hyperemesis gravidarum presents a significant risk factor for Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome as symptoms may rapidly progress in the setting of pregnancy. We present the first-reported case of hyperemesis-gravidarum-associated Wernicke encephalopathy in a patient in the first half of pregnancy in which a missed diagnosis led to septic shock, fetal demise, and eventual profound Korsakoff syndrome.

Case Presentation: We present the case of a 33-year-old primigravid African American woman at 15 weeks gestational age who initially presented at a community emergency department with nausea and vomiting that ultimately progressed to severe hyperemesis-gravidarum-associated Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome, fetal demise, and septic shock. The patient received a total of 6 weeks of high-dose parenteral thiamine. Magnetic resonance imaging of the head and formal neuropsychological assessment following treatment plateau confirmed the diagnosis of Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome.

Conclusions: The multisystem complications seen in severe thiamine deficiency can delay timely administration of high-dose thiamine, particularly in pregnancy, in which the classic triad of Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome may not raise clinical suspicion due to rapid progression of neurological sequelae in this population. We advise a low threshold for parenteral thiamine repletion in pregnant women with persistent vomiting as hyperemesis gravidarum-induced severe thiamine deficiency can result in Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome, sepsis, and fetal demise.

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