Diabetes-Related High and Low Blood Sugar Levels

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Diabetes-Related High and Low Blood Sugar Levels

Topic Overview

Diabetes-related blood sugar levels

When you have diabetes, you may have high blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia) or low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia) from time to time. A cold, the flu, or other sudden illness can cause high blood sugar levels. You will learn to recognize the symptoms and distinguish between high and low blood sugar levels. Insulin and some types of diabetes medicines can cause low blood sugar levels.

Learn how to recognize and manage high and low blood sugar levels to help you avoid levels that can lead to medical emergencies, such as diabetic ketoacidosis or dehydration from high blood sugar levels or loss of consciousness from severe low blood sugar levels. Most high or low blood sugar problems can be managed at home by following your doctor's instructions.

You can help avoid blood sugar problems by following your doctor's instructions on the use of insulin or diabetes medicines, diet, and exercise. Home blood sugar testing will help you determine whether your blood sugar is within your target range. If you have had very low blood sugar, you may be tempted to let your sugar level run high so that you do not have another low blood sugar problem. But it is most important that you keep your blood sugar in your target range. You can do this by following your treatment plan and checking your blood sugar regularly.

Sometimes a pregnant woman can get diabetes during her pregnancy. This is called gestational diabetes. Blood sugar levels are checked regularly during the pregnancy to keep levels within a target range.

Children who have diabetes need their parents' help to keep their blood sugar levels in a target range and to exercise safely. Be sure that children learn the symptoms of both high and low blood sugar so they can tell others when they need help. There are many support groups and diabetes education centers to help parents and children understand about blood sugar, exercise, diet, and medicines.

Teens especially may have a hard time keeping their blood sugar levels in control because their bodies are growing and developing. Also, they want to be with their friends and eat foods that may affect their blood sugar. Having diabetes during the teenage years is not easy. But your teen is at an excellent age to understand the disease and its treatment and to take over some of the responsibilities of his or her care.

If your blood sugar level reads too high or too low but you are feeling well, you may want to recheck your sugar level or recalibrate your blood glucose meter. The problem may be with either your blood sample or the machine.

High blood sugar (hyperglycemia)

High blood sugar occurs when the sugar (glucose) level in your blood rises above normal. Eating too many calories, missing medicines (insulin or pills), or having an infection or illness, injury, surgery, or emotional stress can cause your blood sugar to rise.

High blood sugar usually develops slowly over a period of hours to days. But missing a dose of insulin can cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels. Blood sugar levels just above your target range may make you feel tired and thirsty. If your blood sugar level stays higher than normal for weeks, your body will adjust to that level, and you may not have as many symptoms of high blood sugar.

Unless you don't monitor your blood sugar regularly or you don't notice the symptoms of high blood sugar, you usually will have time to treat high blood sugar so that you can prevent high blood sugar emergencies. Three things can help you prevent high blood sugar problems:

  • Test your blood sugar often, especially if you are sick or are not following your normal routine. You can see when your blood sugar is above your target range, even if you don't have symptoms of high blood sugar such as increased thirst, increased urination, and fatigue. Then you can treat it early, preventing an emergency.
  • Call your doctor if you have frequent high blood sugar levels or if your blood sugar level is consistently staying above your target range. Your medicine may need to be adjusted or changed.
  • Drink extra water or noncaffeinated, non-sugared drinks so you will not be dehydrated. If your blood sugar continues to rise, your kidneys will increase the amount of urine produced, and you can become dehydrated.

Complications of high blood sugar can cause serious problems, including coma and death. Over time, high blood sugar can damage your eyes, heart, kidneys, blood vessels, and nerves.

Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)

Low blood sugar occurs when the sugar (glucose) level in your blood drops below what your body needs. Not eating enough food or skipping meals, taking too much medicine (insulin or pills), exercising more than usual, or taking certain medicines that lower blood sugar can cause your blood sugar to drop rapidly. Do not drink alcohol if you have problems recognizing the early signs of low blood sugar.

People who lose weight or develop kidney problems may not need as much insulin or other medicines as they did before they lost the weight or developed kidney problems. Their blood sugar may drop too low. Be sure to check your blood sugar often when your body goes through changes.

When your blood sugar level drops below 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), you will usually have symptoms of low blood sugar. This can develop quickly, in 10 to 15 minutes.

  • If your blood sugar level drops just slightly below your target range (mild low blood sugar), you may feel tired, anxious, weak, shaky, or sweaty, and you may have a rapid heart rate. If you eat something that contains sugar, these symptoms may last only a short time. If you have diabetes, you may not always notice symptoms of mild low blood sugar. This is called hypoglycemia unawareness. If your blood sugar is well controlled and does not change much during the day, you may have an increased risk for hypoglycemic unawareness.
  • If your blood sugar level continues to drop (usually below 40 mg/dL), your behavior may change, and you may feel more irritable. You may become too weak or confused to eat something with sugar to raise your blood sugar level. Anytime your blood sugar drops below 50 mg/dL, you should act whether you have symptoms or not.
  • If your blood sugar level drops very low (usually below 20 mg/dL), you may lose consciousness or have a seizure. If you have symptoms of severe low blood sugar, you need medical care immediately.

You may have symptoms of low blood sugar if your blood sugar drops from a high level to a lower level. For example, if your blood sugar level has been higher than 300 mg/dL for a week or so and the level drops suddenly to 100 mg/dL, you may have symptoms of low blood sugar even though your blood sugar is in the normal range. But if you have had diabetes for many years, you may not have symptoms of low blood sugar until your blood sugar level is very low.

If your doctor thinks you have low blood sugar levels but you are not having symptoms, he or she may ask you to check your blood sugar more often. Your doctor may ask you to check your blood sugar in the middle of the night or to do a 3-day test using a continuous glucose monitor.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

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Home Treatment

Manage your blood sugar level

When you have diabetes, whether it is type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, or gestational diabetes, one of the most important skills you will learn is how to manage your blood sugar level.

Following your doctor's instructions on the use of insulin or diabetes medicines, diet, and exercise will help you avoid blood sugar problems. You will learn to recognize the symptoms and distinguish between high and low blood sugar levels. It may be hard for a parent of a young child to distinguish the difference between high and low blood sugar symptoms in a child.

When you have learned to recognize high or low blood sugar levels, you can take the appropriate steps to bring your blood sugar level back to your target blood sugar levels.

People who keep their blood sugar levels under control with diet, exercise, or oral diabetes medicines are less likely to have problems with high or low blood sugar levels. Do not drink alcohol if you have problems recognizing the early signs of low blood sugar.

Learn how to deal with high blood sugar levels

Be sure to know the steps for dealing with high blood sugar and how fast your insulin medicine will work to bring your blood sugar down. Some insulins work very fast while regular insulin takes a little longer to bring the sugar level down. Knowing how fast your insulin works will keep you from using too much too quickly.

Learn how to deal with low blood sugar levels

Because you have diabetes and can have low blood sugar levels, you need to keep some type of food with you at all times that can quickly raise your blood sugar level. These should be quick-sugar foods (about 15 to 20 grams of carbohydrate) that puts glucose into your bloodstream in about 5 minutes. Any quick-sugar food on this list will raise your blood sugar about 30 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) in about 15 to 20 minutes. Be sure to check your blood sugar level again 15 minutes after eating a quick-sugar (carbohydrate) food to make sure your level is getting back to your target range. When your blood sugar gets to 70 mg/dL or higher, you can eat your normal meals and snacks.

Foods to help raise blood sugar1, 2, 3
FoodAmount
Glucose tablets 3–4 tablets
Glucose gel 1 tube
Table sugar 1 tablespoon (3 teaspoons)
Fruit juice or regular soda pop ½–¾ cup (4–6 ounces)
Fat-free milk 1 cup (8 ounces)
Honey1 tablespoon (3 teaspoons)
Jellybeans10–15
Raisins 2 tablespoons
Gum drops 10
Candy like Life Savers5–7 pieces
Hard candy (like Jolly Rancher)3 pieces

It is important to know that sugar foods like a candy bar or ice cream do not help raise low blood sugar levels quickly, because these foods also have fat and protein. So the body can't use the sugar (carbohydrate) in these foods quickly to raise the blood sugar level.

You can get low blood sugar from using Click here to view an Actionset.too much insulin or from other Click here to view an Actionset.medicines you take.

Parents need to help their child Click here to view an Actionset.learn to treat a low blood sugar level.

Pregnant women who have gestational diabetes also need to know Click here to view an Actionset.how to deal with a low blood sugar level.

Since low blood sugar levels can quickly become a medical emergency, be sure to wear medical identification, such as a medical alert bracelet, to let people know you have diabetes so they can get help for you.

If you have severe symptoms of low blood sugar, someone else may need to give you a shot of glucagon. If this occurs, be sure to call your doctor immediately to let him or her know this has happened.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

Prevention

Take steps to control your blood sugar level

Although high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) and low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) have very different symptoms and treatments, they are both caused by blood sugar and insulin imbalances. The steps you take to control your blood sugar level will help prevent both high and low blood sugar levels.

Be sure to have identification that says you have diabetes, such as a medical alert bracelet, with you at all times. This will help other people take steps to care for you if you are not able tell them about your medical condition.

You can take steps to prevent high and low blood sugar emergencies.

  • Follow your treatment plan.
  • Monitor your blood sugar levels regularly to detect early changes before an emergency develops. Treat your symptoms of high or low blood sugar quickly to prevent more problems.
  • Control your stress to Click here to view an Actionset.prevent your blood sugar level from increasing slowly over several days.
  • Limit how much alcohol you drink. Do not drink alcohol if you have problems recognizing the early signs of low blood sugar.
  • Take precautions when you are driving and do not drive if your blood sugar is below 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).

Monitoring and controlling blood sugar levels

Use home blood sugar tests to determine whether your blood sugar is in your target range. Work with your doctor to set your individual treatment goals. If you can consistently maintain this level of control, you will have very few blood sugar level emergencies.

Parents can help their Click here to view an Actionset.child learn how to prevent low blood sugar levels and Click here to view an Actionset.high blood sugar levels.

Control stress

No matter how skilled you are at monitoring and controlling your blood sugar levels, you are still at risk for high or low blood sugar levels that are brought on by stressful situations. Stress can affect your body's blood sugar levels in two ways:

  • It changes the way your body uses insulin, which is mostly a problem for people with type 2 diabetes.
  • It can cause you to change the way you take care of yourself, a problem for all people with diabetes.

Stress can be both mental and physical. Some examples of stress include an illness, a bad day at work, and a tough problem at home. When you are under stress, your blood sugar levels change. For more information, see the topic Stress Management.

Blood sugar levels and exercise

You can keep your blood sugar levels under control when you exercise, so that you do not become too hungry or make your blood sugar level drop. There are two ways to keep your blood sugar levels under control:

  1. At the meal before your planned exercise, you can take less insulin, OR
  2. Before you exercise, eat some carbohydrate.

Keep a quick-sugar food with you during exercise in case your blood sugar level drops low.

Vaccinations

Your doctor may recommend that you get vaccinations, such as a flu(What is a PDF document?) vaccine or pneumococcal vaccine, to prevent you from those illnesses.

Other places to get help

The American Diabetes Association has a lot of information on diabetes and can link you to support groups. For more information, call 1-800-DIABETES (1-800-342-2383) or see the organization's website: www.diabetes.org/home.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

Questions to prepare for doctor appointment

You can help your doctor treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What steps did you take to correct your high or low blood sugar level? Did they help?
  • Have you had signs of another illness?
  • Have you made any recent changes in your diet, exercise, or medicines?
  • What other prescription and nonprescription medicines do you take?
  • Have you recently had increased emotional or physical stress?
  • Have you noticed situations that trigger or may cause your high or low blood sugar problem?
  • Have you noticed any patterns, such as time of day, when your high or low blood sugar problem occurs?
  • Have you used a high blood sugar card(What is a PDF document?)? If so, be sure to bring it when you see your doctor.
  • Do you have other health risks?

Be sure to take your daily blood sugar (glucose) monitoring logbook to your appointment. If you have specific records of your high(What is a PDF document?) and low(What is a PDF document?) blood sugar problems, be sure to take those records.

Parents will also need to keep records of their child's high or low(What is a PDF document?) blood sugar problems to share with their child's doctor.

Other Places To Get Help

Organization

American Diabetes Association (ADA)
1701 North Beauregard Street
Alexandria, VA  22311
Phone: 1-800-DIABETES (1-800-342-2383)
Email: AskADA@diabetes.org
Web Address: www.diabetes.org
 

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) is a national organization for health professionals and consumers. Almost every state has a local office. ADA sets the standards for the care of people with diabetes. Its focus is on research for the prevention and treatment of all types of diabetes. ADA provides patient and professional education mainly through its publications, which include the monthly magazine Diabetes Forecast, books, brochures, cookbooks and meal planning guides, and pamphlets. ADA also provides information for parents about caring for a child with diabetes.


References

Citations

  1. American Diabetes Association (2011). Carbs: Fast! Available online: http://forecast.diabetes.org/diabetes-101/carbs-fast.
  2. Warshaw H, Kulkarni K (2011). The Complete Guide to Carb Counting, 3rd ed. Alexandria, VA: American Diabetes Association.
  3. American Diabetes Association (2010). Hypoglycemia. Available online: http://www.diabetes.org/living-with-diabetes/parents-and-kids/planet-d/new-to-diabetes/hypoglycemia.html.

Credits

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerWilliam H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerH. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last RevisedNovember 15, 2012



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