Low Blood Sugar (Glucose)

Diabetes Guide




What Is Hypoglycemia?
What Are The Symptoms?
Levels Of Hypoglycemia
What Causes Hypoglycemia?
How Is It Treated?

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Diabetes Guide

What Is Hypoglycemia?

Hypoglycemia is a condition that occurs when a person's blood sugar (glucose) levels are too low. [Compare with hyperglycemia - abnormally high blood sugar]. Hypoglycemia is a common complication of diabetes. It can cause headaches, loss of concentration and in severe cases, convulsions and coma. A blood sugar count of 80 mg/dl is considered low but you may not experience symptoms until you hit 60 mg/dl. Fortunately most cases of hypoglycemia are mild and can be easily corrected by taking a few sugar cubes, 2 or 3 glucose tablets or drinking a sugary drink.

Type 1 diabetics are, on average, hypoglycemic 10 percent of the time. It causes symptoms about twice a week and a severe 'attack' once a year. Type 2 diabetics in comparison have severe episodes only one-tenth as often. The main reason for this difference is the difference in medication taken.

What Are The Symptoms?

Your brain needs glucose to run the rest of your body, if levels drop too low, your intellectual function suffers. You can develop what doctors medically term neuroglycopenic symptoms. These include:

• Headache
• Blurry vision or double vision
• Loss of concentration
• Feeling cranky or aggressive
• Confusion
• Tiredness

In prolonged, extreme cases:
• Convulsions (seizures)
• Fainting
• Coma

The muscles in your body need glucose for energy, rather like a car needs gas to run on. If your blood glucose drop too low, the body panics and sends out a group of hormones to rapidly increase your levels again. The main hormone it sends out is adrenaline. This response can result in a second category of symptoms called adrenergic symptoms (adrenaline comes from the adrenal glands):

• Paleness
• Sweating
• Rapid heartbeat
• Anxiety, feeling nervous
• Hunger

Important: If you become moderately or severely hypoglycemic, you make simple mistakes, others may even think you are drunk. Wearing a diabetic medical bracelet can help medical staff identify your problem quickly if you are unable to care for yourself.

Levels Of Hypoglycemia

There are 3 levels of hypoglycemia, varying in degrees of severity and defined by the level of blood glucose.

Mild hypoglycemia: Blood glucose around 75 mg/dl. Easily treated by the patient herself. She may not even experience symptoms but only discovers it during routine blood glucose monitoring.
Moderate hypoglycemia: Blood glucose around 65 mg/dl. Patient begins to feel adrenergic symptoms, especially anxiety and rapid heartbeat. She may not recognize her need for glucose, but appears drunk and uncoordinated to others.
Severe hypoglycemia: Blood glucose less than 55 mg/dl. Patient is severely impaired and requires emergency medical attention. An injection of glucagon or glucose solution is necessary.

Related Questions

What is a normal blood sugar count?
Are there any home tests for diabetes?

What Causes Hypoglycemia?

In Diabetics

Too much insulin
Hypoglycemia most often occurs in patients who accidentally overdose on insulin medications. The insulin drives down the blood glucose levels causing symptoms.

Blood glucose used too quickly
It may also be caused by your body using up its supply of glucose too quickly. Exercise burns glucose and generally lowers your blood glucose. Some diabetics even use exercise to bring high blood sugar levels down instead of taking insulin. If you don't adjust your food intake and insulin levels to match your exercise, you can end up with hypoglycemia.

Fasting hypoglycemia
Timing when you eat and take your insulin shots is critical for good blood sugar management. If you skip meals or take your insulin too late, your insulin and glucose levels will not be synch and hypoglycemia results. Certain medications, like sulfonylurea, require a stricter diet regieme or can lead to low blood sugar quickly. They are taken by all type 1 diabetics (and only some type 2).

Aspirin (salicylates) can increase the effects of drugs you are taking to lower blood glucose. However, aspirin therapy, that is taking a small daily dose of aspirin to reduce the risk of a heart attack, does not cause hypoglycemia.

In Diabetics And Non-Diabetics

The following can lower blood sugar both in diabetics and non-diabetics:

Drinking alcohol: Eating with alcohol can counteract some of the effect.
Insulinoma: A rare pancreas tumor that produces too much insulin.
Hormones: A deficiency (lack) of a cortisol or thyroid hormones.
Illness: Body-wide (systemic) infection, or severe organ failure.
Surgery: Certain types of weight loss surgery.

How Is It Treated?

The usual treatment is for hypoglycemia is an immediate dose of sugar in oral form or by injection. Mild cases can be resolved by taking one of the following:

• 2 sugar cubes
• 2 or 3 glucose tablets
• Small (6 oz) of sugary drink
• 8 ounces of milk or 4 ounces of orange juice
• Any food or drink with 15 grams of glucose in it.

Use a blood glucose monitor to measure your blood glucose to see if your level has risen enough. Sometimes you may need a second treatment 20 minutes later.

In an emergency, if the patient is losing consciousness or cannot sit up and swallow properly, a glucagon injection is necessary. Most type 1 diabetics have an emergency kit containing a syringe with 1mg of glucagon. When injected, the patient should regain consciousness within 20 minutes.

When To Get Help

If symptoms of low blood sugar do not improve after eating a sugary snack, call 911 or ask someone to take you to an emergency room. Never drive yourself. If you know someone who is diabetic and they become less alert or cannot be woken up, get medical help right away. See also, what to do in case of diabetic coma - helping someone else.

  Related Articles on Hypoglycemia

For more on diabetes, see the following:

Metabolic syndrome: Raising your risk of type 2 diabetes.
Hemoglobin A1C Test: Screening for diabetes.
Insulin pens: Making daily medication easier.

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