Hyperglycemia (elevated blood sugar levels) and Hypoglycemia (below normal blood sugar levels) can each become life-threatening in a matter of minutes. Recognizing these Diabetic emergencies may save your life or that of a loved one.
In both Type 1 and 2 Diabetes, the disease interferes with the body’s ability to manage blood sugar levels.
➡ Type 1 Diabetes interferes by destroying the cells that produce insulin.
➡ Type 2 Diabetes lowers the body’s response time to the insulin, while there’s not even enough insulin being produced to manage the amount of sugar in the body.
Occasionally, even overuse of certain medications used to treat diabetes can trigger diabetic emergencies.
The most common diabetic emergencies include the following:
1. Severe hypoglycemia
Hypoglycemia means that the blood sugar levels are abnormally low. It can happen after a delayed or missed meal. It is a medical emergency.
➡ It’s most commonly seen in Diabetics who take insulin or oral medications to manage their condition.
Under the following conditions, blood sugar levels may drop dangerously low:
➡ Consuming too much alcohol
➡ exercising without adjusting food intake or insulin dosage
➡ missing or delaying meals
➡ overdosing on diabetic medication
2. Diabetic ketoacidosis
➡ Over time, the body releases hormones that break down fat to provide fuel. This produces acids called ketones.
➡ As ketones build up in the body, ketoacidosis can occur.
Common causes of ketoacidosis include:
- Uncontrolled or untreated diabetes
- An illness or infection that changes hormone production
- An illness or infection that changes the way the body responds to diabetes treatments
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- A heart attack
- Some medications, particularly corticosteroids
3. Hyperglycemic hyperosmolar syndrome (HHS) is among the diabetic emergencies that happen when blood sugar levels become dangerously high.
It is a metabolic complication of diabetes, identified by severe hyperglycemia (extremely high blood sugar), extreme dehydration, and altered consciousness.
It most often occurs in Type 2 Diabetes, often in the setting of being in a state of stress.
➡ People with poorly controlled type 2 diabetes are more prone to HHS, but other factors also increase the risk:
- Illness, infection or heart attack
- Using medications that reduce insulin effectiveness
- Taking medications that promote fluid loss (Diuretics)
Infections may also become more severe, triggering life-threatening complications.
- Skin and urinary tract infections are especially common. Even minor skin infections can spread to deeper tissue and become a life-threatening
- Urinary tract infections may spread to the kidneys or elsewhere in the body.
- A recent injury or illness, an open wound, and exposure to people with contagious infections all increase your own risks.
Poorly controlled Diabetes, however, is the most common reason for diabetic emergencies, as it raises the risk of infections.
Diabetics, even those taking Insulin or oral medications to control their blood sugar, have a higher risk of heart attack and stroke than others.
➡ Diabetes can harm virtually every system in the body, increasing the risk of many other diseases.
Any sudden, unexplained symptom requires a call to the doctor.
Diabetics should be especially mindful of the following symptoms:
➡ significant increases or decreases in urination
➡ excessive thirst
➡ sudden weight loss
➡ being nauseous
➡ fever accompanied by pain or swelling
➡ very high or very low blood sugar
It is particularly important to see a doctor if the change in blood sugar level is sudden or occurs in response to a medication change.
The following symptoms indicate a diabetic emergency, and are examples of when emergency medical services or 911 (in the U.S.) should be called or a person needs to be taken to the Emergency Room
- Loss of consciousness
- Signs of a stroke (drooping face, changes in consciousness, slurred speech
- Swelling or pain in the extremities
- Blue or numb hands or feet
- Intense stomach pain
- Fruit-scented breath (common)
- Changes in speech or movement
- Intense muscle weakness
- Unexplained and sudden exhaustion
Signs of a heart attack
Signs of a heart attack include pressure or pain in the center of the chest accompanied by shortness of breath.
Chest pain that lasts longer than a minute is always a medical emergency.
What to do in diabetic emergencies
People should not try to treat a diabetic emergency at home. Instead, they should call their emergency services as soon as possible.
- Because a diabetic emergency happens when diabetes symptoms have overwhelmed the body, home treatment is unlikely to work and delaying medical care could cause permanent damage or death.
Call 911 or go to the emergency room immediately.
Some symptoms, such as fruity-smelling breath, seem harmless, but they’re signs that the body’s sugar is very high. It’s better to err on the side of caution.
- High blood glucose levels or above/below normal blood pressure readings (Hypertension or Hypotension) are clear signals that the other symptoms are serious.
When a loved one or a friend has diabetes and displays unusual behavior, seems confused, or complains of any of the symptoms of a diabetes emergency, DO NOT try to treat it yourself or adopt a “wait-and-see” approach. Instead, urge the person with the symptoms to seek emergency care immediately.
Preventing diabetic emergencies
Diabetes is a chronic illness, and as it progresses, it can become harder to manage. But not all diabetic emergencies can be prevented. However, there are things you can do to lower the risks of an emergency.
- Eat healthful, balanced, regular meals.
Skipping meals is always dangerous.
- Don’t drink too many alcoholic or sugary drinks.
People with diabetes are prone to kidney problems, and controlling their sugar and blood pressure can cut their risk.
- Both high-sugar drinks and alcoholic beverages raise blood sugar and contribute to obesity.
Treat signs of infection or illness promptly.
- Because diabetes damages the organs, it makes the body more prone to a range of infections and ailments. Prompt treatment can prevent minor illnesses from becoming more serious.
➡ Take medications exactly as prescribed.
- If you’re a diabetic and cannot remember whether you took your last dose of medications or not, consult a doctor before taking a further dose. An overdose can cause hypoglycemia.
➡ Exercise regularly. There is no getting around this step. It’s crucial for diabetics.
- Exercise helps the body control blood sugar.
- It can also help prevent medical issues that often go with diabetes, such as high blood pressure, obesity, and poor circulation.
Planning for a diabetic emergency
➡ No specific medication or procedure can stop a diabetic emergency once it occurs.
Instead, emergency planning should focus on getting prompt help.
Take steps to secure your safety:
- Tell friends and family if you have Diabetes
- Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace that gives information to emergency responders if you lose consciousness
- Always keep a cell phone charged and ready to contact emergency responders
- Know which doctor to call with questions about diabetes emergencies