A person with diabetes can run into problems if they find themselves with a blood sugar level that is way too high or far too low. We’re all familiar with these roller coaster rides. In most cases, they’re able to take the necessary steps to address the symptoms. But there are times where they may need some extra help.
If you have a loved one who has diabetes, it’s important to talk to them about what you should do if they experience a diabetes emergency. Without proper treatment, diabetes emergencies can become life-threatening. However, having the right information to help you take action can turn you into a life saver!
Here’s a closer look at the most common types of diabetes emergencies and important action steps you can take. Be sure to brush up and get familiar with these scenarios so you and your loved one can come up with an action plan for potential emergency situations...
Severe Hypoglycemia Emergency Plan
Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, happens when blood sugar levels drop too low (usually defined as 70 mg/dl or lower).¹ And we don’t like Hypos, right? They’re as useless as a chocolate teapot.
Severe hypoglycemia occurs if a person with diabetes is impaired to the point that they need another person's assistance.
Some of the symptoms of severe hypoglycemia include:¹
- Blurred vision
- Passing out
- Severe confusion
- If you notice any early signs of hypoglycemia like sweating, moodiness, a headache, weakness, fatigue, clammy skin, or the shakes, ask your loved one to check their blood sugar. And don’t take it personally if your loved one gets a little cranky. Every person with diabetes reacts differently when they’re experiencing a low and their body is stressed. Just be kind and patient. They will appreciate it so much in the long run.
- If their blood sugar is low, help them get 15-20 grams of fast-acting carbs into their body quickly, whether that’s a tablespoon of honey, four ounces of fruit juice, or three to five glucose tablets. If they don’t feel better after 15 minutes, give them additional carbs and get them to test again.²
- When someone passes out due to low blood sugar, this is a medical emergency. Don’t try to give them liquid or food since this could cause choking.
- Someone who knows how should give a glucagon shot (NOT insulin!) to bring up their blood sugar levels quickly. Then it’s time to call for emergency assistance. If you don’t know how to give a glucagon injection, you should call for emergency assistance straight away.³
Diabetic Ketoacidosis Emergency Plan
Diabetic ketoacidosis is a super serious diabetic emergency that happens if blood sugar levels become very high.
Common symptoms and signs of diabetic ketoacidosis include:⁴
- Dry mouth
- Extreme thirst
- Labored, deep breathing or hyperventilating
- A sweet, unusual smell on their breath
- Rapid heart rate
- Disorientation and confusion
- Possible coma
Usually, these symptoms begin to develop over a period of 24 hours when blood sugar levels get and stay too high. The most common trigger of diabetic ketoacidosis is having an infection or being sick.
- If a loved one is showing the signs of diabetic ketoacidosis, have them take a ketone test if they have one to hand. A ketone test kit requires them to test their pee.
- If the test shows that ketones are present and they have blood sugar levels of over 240 m/dl, they need to see a medical professional immediately since this can quickly turn into a medical emergency.⁵
Hyperglycemia Emergency Plan
When blood sugar levels get dangerously high but there are few or no ketones, this is a diabetic emergency called hyperosmolar hyperglycemic nonketotic syndrome (HHNS). It occurs in people with type 2 diabetes and is most common in aging adults when they get an infection or get sick.
Symptoms of HHNS include:⁶
- Vision loss
- Extremely high blood sugar (i.e., 600 mg/dl or even higher)
- Dry tongue and mouth
- Increase in thirst
- Weight loss
- Make sure your loved one checks their blood sugar regularly, especially if they’re sick or recently had a medical procedure.
- Always ensure your loved one stays hydrated!
- Develop a sick-day plan with your loved one so you know what they should do when they’re sick and how to know when it’s time to call the doctor.
- If a loved one develops the symptoms of HHNS, call for emergency help or take them to an emergency room for immediate medical assistance.
Additional Emergency Tips
- It might be an idea for your loved one with diabetes to wear a diabetes emergency ID so paramedics can recognize their condition if they require emergency care.
- Ensure your loved one alway has sufficient diabetes supplies on hand.
- When it comes to emergency situations, always make sure that people are informed that your loved one has diabetes.
- When travelling, consider purchasing travel insurance to cover diabetes related emergencies.
- American Diabetes Association, 2020. Hypoglycemia (Low Blood sugar). [webpage] Available at: https://www.diabetes.org/healthy-living/medication-treatments/blood-glucose-testing-and-control/hypoglycemia [Accessed 02/03/21].
- Diabetes.co.uk, 2019. What is a Hypo: Hypo Causes, Symptoms and Treatment. [webpage] Available at: https://www.diabetes.co.uk/what-is-a-hypo.html [Accessed 02/03/21].
- Diabetes.co.uk, 2019. Severe Hypoglycemia. [webpage] Available at: https://www.diabetes.co.uk/severe-hypoglycemia.html [Accessed 03/03/2021] https://www.diabetes.co.uk/severe-hypoglycemia.html
- Diabetes.co.uk, 2019. Diabetic Ketoacidosis. [webpage] Available at: https://www.diabetes.co.uk/diabetes-complications/diabetic-ketoacidosis.html [Accessed 03/03/21].
- Medical News Today, 2020. What to do in diabetic emergencies. [webpage] Available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/317436#diabetic-ketoacidosis [Accessed 03/03/21].
- Diabetes Self Management, 2018. Recognizing and Responding to Diabetic Emergencies. [webpage] Available at: https://www.diabetesselfmanagement.com/blog/recognizing-and-responding-to-diabetic-emergencies/ [Accessed 03/03/21].
The mySugr website does not provide medical or legal advice. mySugr blog articles are not scientific articles, but intended for informational purposes only.
Medical or nutritional information on the mySugr website is not intended to replace professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always consult a physician or health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.