How to Avoid a Diabetic Emergency

What you can do to help prevent a diabetes emergency

Quick summary

Part of dealing with type 2 diabetes is learning how to handle potential problems that accompany this diagnosis. Even people who generally keep their diabetes under control may find themselves facing an emergency situation. Find out what these potentially dire diabetes complications are and what you can do to help solve or avoid them.

Hyperosmolar hyperglycemic nonketotic syndrome

What it is:

This condition, which also goes by the acronyms HHNS or HONK, is an emergency condition most frequently seen in older people whose blood glucose level is very high. Typically, an underlying illness such as pneumonia, a urinary tract or other infection, or failure to follow a diabetes treatment plan triggers the disorder. HHNS causes severe dehydration, and, left untreated, it can lead to seizures, coma, and even death. The disorder may take days or weeks to develop.

Symptoms:

  • Blood sugar level over 600 mg/dL
  • Increased urination at first, followed by less frequent but very dark urine
  • Dry, parched mouth
  • Extreme thirst (which may gradually disappear)
  • Warm, dry skin with no sweat
  • Rapid pulse
  • High fever (over 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Sleepiness or confusion
  • Loss of vision
  • Hallucinations
  • Weakness on one side of the body

How to treat it:

This is an emergency condition that requires immediate attention. Call 911 or take the patient to the nearest hospital.

How to prevent it:

  • A patient should check his blood sugar regularly, such as before or after meals, upon waking, and before bedtime. Talk with his main diabetes care provider about when and how often to test.
  • Find out from his care provider about his target blood sugar range and when he should call if his blood sugar readings are too high.
  • If a patient is sick or has an infection, he should check his blood sugar more often.

Ketoacidosis

What it is:

This disorder, also known as diabetic ketoacidosis, or DKA, occurs when someone has harmfully high levels of ketones, or acids, building up in his blood. Ketones are a chemical produced when there's a shortage of insulin in the blood and the body is forced to break down fat for energy. Ketones can spill over into the urine when a person's body doesn't have enough insulin, and essentially it act as a poison.

Symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing, rapid breath, or shortness of breath
  • Breath that smells fruity
  • A very dry mouth
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Extreme tiredness, drowsiness, or weakness
  • Rapid heartbeat and low blood pressure
  • Blood sugar level higher than 300 mg/dL

How to treat it:

This is an emergency condition that requires immediate attention. Call 911 or take the person to the nearest hospital.

How to prevent it:

  • Make sure the patient drinks plenty of water so he stays hydrated and can flush ketones out of his system.
  • He can do a simple urine test available over the counter to check for ketones.
  • He should refrain from exercising if his blood glucos e is 250 mg/dL or higher and ketones are present in his urine.
  • He should check his blood glucose often and immediately report any sky-high readings to his main diabetes care provider.