Signs of Low Blood Sugar
If you live with or know a type 1 or type 2 diabetic, then you should be aware of the signs of low blood sugar so that you are in a position to help if and when an emergency arises.
Diabetes is a chronic illness that affects nearly 8 percent of the United States population, according to the American Diabetes Association. The disease is characterized by the absence of insulin in the bloodstream (type 1 diabetes) or the body's inability to utilize insulin effectively (type 2 diabetes).
Since insulin is the mechanism that allows glucose in the bloodstream, known as blood sugar, to provide food for the brain and energy to the body's organs and cells, diabetics must inject insulin or take other oral medications to counteract any insulin deficiency. All diabetics must also follow a daily regimen that includes a heart-healthy diet and plenty of physical activity to help regulate blood sugar levels.
Life often becomes a delicate balancing act for diabetics as they struggle to balance their insulin intake with exercise and carbohydrate consumption, the foods that provide the body with blood sugar.
Normal blood sugar levels are 70 mg/dl to 120 mg/dl. If a diabetic consumes too many carbohydrates or doesn't take enough insulin, blood sugar levels can run high, resulting in a condition known as hyperglycemia. Blood sugar levels below 70 mg/dl is considered hypoglycemia, a life-threatening condition. Fortunately, there are several initial signs of low blood sugar that help the diabetic and those around them know that a medical situation is arising.
Causes of Low Blood Sugar
Some causes of low blood sugar are under a diabetic's control, including:
- Insufficient carbohydrate consumption
- Consuming alcoholic beverages
- Prolonged strenuous physical activity
- Too much insulin
Other causes of hypoglycemia can catch a diabetic by surprise:
- Mental or emotional stress
- Severe or prolonged illness
Signs and Symptoms of Hypoglycemia
Most diabetics are able to identify the signs of low blood sugar fairly quickly and treat it before the condition becomes serious -- but not always. If someone's blood sugar levels normally run between 100 mg/dl and 120 mg/dl they might feel the onset of low blood sugar symptoms when they near the 70 mg/dl mark. Diabetics whose blood sugar levels are usually on the lower end of the spectrum, like in the 70 mg/dl to 80 mg/dl range, may not begin to feel symptoms of hypoglycemia until their blood sugar levels are already dangerously low.
The onset of symptoms usually includes:
- Shakiness or trembling
If not treated quickly, signs of low blood sugar can develop into:
- Extreme sweating
- A feeling of being disoriented
- Denial of any blood sugar level problems
- Extreme anger or giddiness
If hypoglycemia is not treated at this point or is not responding to treatment, the person can quickly become unconscious, suffer seizures or even fall into a coma which can lead to brain damage or even death.
Not everyone will develop all of these symptoms and some people may develop signs that are not on this list. When with a diabetic, just be on the lookout for behavior that is not normal for them. They may resist checking their blood sugar levels. If they do, err on the side of caution and continue on with treatment.
Treatment for Low Blood Sugar
If the diabetic is conscious and coherent:
- Give them a glass of juice, soda (not diet) or other sweetened beverage or two glucose tablets.
- Follow-up the beverage with a carbohydrate, like a few crackers, a carbohydrate that includes fats or proteins, like a chocolate bar with nuts or some fruit, like an orange.
- Check blood sugar levels after 10 to 15 minutes. If levels have not risen properly, repeat the treatment.
If the person is unconscious:
- Use glucose gel, cake frosting or the small tubes of cake icing available at the grocery store. Put a dab of the gel or frosting on your finger, and swab it on the inside of the diabetic's cheek. This should revive the patient enough to follow the treatment outlined above with beverage followed by carbohydrate.
- If the person does not regain consciousness, repeat one more time. If they still do not respond, follow the treatment outlined below.
If the person is unconscious, has not responded to treatment and is experiencing seizures:
- Immediately call for medical assistance.
- While waiting for medical help to arrive, check the person's belongings for a plastic box roughly the size of a toothbrush carrier that contains a large syringe. Most diabetics, particularly those with a history of hypoglycemia, carry this prescription-only glucagon with them.
- Inject the liquid into the syringe into the small vial containing a white tablet.
- Shake the vial until the tablet is fully dissolved.
- Draw the liquid into the syringe.
- Inject the liquid into the person subcutaneously, or under the skin, preferably on the thigh or abdomen.
Myths About Low Blood Sugar
- Do not inject insulin into a person suffering from hypoglycemia. This will immediately worsen their condition and can even be fatal.
- While high blood sugar can have very serious long-term medical implications, hypoglycemia can cause brain damage, coma or death within a very short period of time.
- If you feel that you don't know what to do or the person becomes combative, call for medical assistance immediately. Your friend will thank you for it in the end.
The author is a freelance writer who has close to 100 published articles on diabetes and its complications. She is also the mother of a type 1 diabetic who has struggled with low blood sugar for 15 years.
The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only. Please consult your physician if you or someone you know needs medical assistance in dealing with hypoglycemia.
More by this Author
If you've never tried a Caipirinha, now is the time. This national cocktail of Brazil contains fruit, sugar and cachaca, also known as aguardiente. (Please drink responsibly.)
Diet is one of the most important factors in controlling diabetes. Learn how low glycemic index foods can help diabetics to avoid blood sugar spikes that can cause complications later in life.
Visit Connecticut and discover a host of places to see and things to do that are just a little off the beaten path.