Treatment for Hypoglycemia, a Diabetes Emergency

Know the Signs to Prevent and Treat Hypoglycemia

Emergency Action. Credit: BSIP / Contributor / Getty Images

Diabetes emergencies can be scary. But knowing what can happen and how to respond can help you prevent them from happening at all. This article describes one potential diabetes emergency -- hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) -- and how to respond.

Other diabetes emergencies include:

  • Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar)
  • Ketoacidosis (sustained high blood sugar that produces toxins, ketones, in your body)

What Causes Hypoglycemia

Low blood sugar, also called an insulin reaction, typically occurs because your insulin, food and exercise are out of balance.

For example, if you take extra insulin anticipating a bigger meal in 10 minutes but that meal is delayed, you could experience hypoglycemia. It’s also possible to have a low blood sugar reaction at night while sleeping. 

Symptoms of Hypoglycemia

Hypoglycemia can leave you feeling

  • confused
  • tired
  • hungry
  • shaky
  • sweaty
  • anxious

If left untreated, it could result in seizures, coma or even death. 

Symptoms of hypoglycemia during sleep include calling out, nightmares, sweating, and confusion upon waking.

Each person responds a bit differently when experiencing low blood sugar, so it is important to learn the signals of your body and respond immediately. Parents should also inform school personnel of how to spot hypoglycemia in their child and provide information on appropriate treatment.

Learn More About the Symptoms of Hypoglycemia

How to Respond to a Hypoglycemic Reaction

A hypoglycemic reaction needs to be treated with fast-acting glucose.

If possible, you should always check your blood before taking any glucose to ensure that you are reading the symptoms correctly. If your glucose reading is below 70 mg/dl, take a fast-acting source of glucose, such as:

  • ½ cup (4 oz.) of juice or non-diet soda
  • 1 cup (8 oz) milk
  • 1 tablespoon of honey
  • 3 to 4 glucose tables (specially made for these situations)

    For children, these servings should be reduced. Talk with your child's doctor for specific guidance on the amount of glucose that is appropriate to treat your child’s low blood sugar.

    Check Blood Sugars Again in 15 Minutes

    To ensure that your blood sugar is returning to a safe level, you should retest your blood about 15 minutes after taking some glucose. If it is still below 70 mg/dl, take another serving of fast-acting glucose and check again in another 15 minutes. It’s important that you not take in too much glucose when you experience hypoglycemia because it will cause your blood sugar to swing high. The goal is to raise your blood sugar enough to stop the symptoms.


    Hypoglycemia. National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. Accessed March 11, 2009. 

    Hyperglycemia is a potential diabetes emergency, and knowing what to do when it happens is critical.

    What can happen: Hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, is common among people with type 1 diabetes. It becomes an emergency situation when the glucose in your blood rises to dangerous levels, usually above 240 mg/dl. Classic symptoms of high blood sugar are frequent urination and increased thirst.

    High blood sugar usually occurs because you:

    • have not given yourself enough insulin
    • have eaten more than what you’ve covered for with your insulin
    • are sick
    • are under stress

    Hyperglycemia can also occur at night while you sleep. Common causes of high glucose at night might be eating too much before bedtime or an increase in insulin resistance during the night caused by hormone fluctuations (also called the Dawn Phenomenon). If you notice high blood sugar upon waking, it might be related to a sudden drop in glucose levels during the night. This rapid drop sends a signal that your body needs more glucose, and your body responds by dumping extra glucose into your system. This is called the Somogyi Effect or more commonly a “rebound.”

    How to respond. Though you may suspect that your blood sugar is high, testing your blood is the only way to know for certain. Once you know your glucose level, take the prescribed dose of insulin to bring your glucose level down.

    If your test result is higher than 240 mg/dl, you should also test your urine for ketones.

    Learn more about other diabetes emergencies you should be prepared for:

    • Hypoglycemia
    • Ketoacidosis


    Hyperglycemia. American Diabetes Association. Accessed March 12, 2009.

    Diabetes emergencies can be frightening, but knowing what can happen and how to react to it will make you as prepared as you can be.

    One of these potential emergencies is ketoacidosis -- sustained high blood sugar that produces toxins, ketones, in your body.

    What can happen: Diabetic ketoacidosis, or DKA, is a serious and possibly life-threatening condition that results from not having enough insulin.

    A lack of insulin in your body means that the glucose in your blood cannot be used for energy. The body then looks for an alternate form of energy, such as stored fat. But as fat is broken down, it creates a toxic waste product known as ketones, which can poison the body.

    Ketoacidosis can also accompany sickness. It’s important to test for ketones regularly when you are ill. Ketone testing is easy and can be done at home with the use of urine strips.

    Symptoms of DKA include:

    • nausea and vomiting
    • a rapid and weak pulse
    • abdominal pain
    • breath that has a fruity odor
    • labored breathing
    • low blood pressure

    How to respond: When any of the above symptoms are accompanied by 2 or more glucose readings over 300 mg/dl, you should contact your doctor. When vomiting is present, ketoacidosis can progress quickly. The immediate treatment involves rehydration of lost fluids and the administration of insulin. When you are ill, check for ketones every 4 to 6 hours.

    Learn more about other diabetes emergencies you should be prepared for:

    • Hypoglycemia
    • Hyperglycemia


    Ketoacidosis. American Diabetes Association. Accessed March 13, 2009.

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