Diabetes

Information, Symptoms, Treatments and Resources

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When Hypoglycemia Happens

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Understanding — and preparing for — low blood glucose

 

Hypoglycemia, also called low blood glucose or low blood sugar, occurs when blood glucose drops below normal levels. Glucose, an important source of energy for the body, comes from food. After a meal, glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream and carried to the body's cells. Insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas, helps the cells use glucose for energy. If a person takes in more glucose than the body needs at the time, the body stores the extra glucose in the liver and muscles in a form called glycogen. The body can use glycogen for energy between meals. Extra glucose can also be changed to fat and stored in fat cells. Fat can also be used for energy. When blood glucose begins to fall, glucagon — another hormone made by the pancreas — signals the liver to break down glycogen and release glucose into the bloodstream. Blood glucose will then rise toward a normal level.

In some people with diabetes, this glucagon response to hypoglycemia is impaired and other hormones such as epinephrine, also called adrenaline, may raise the blood glucose level. But with diabetes treated with insulin or pills that increase insulin production, glucose levels can't easily return to the normal range. Hypoglycemia can happen suddenly. It's usually mild and can be treated quickly and easily by eating or drinking a small amount of glucose-rich food. If left untreated, hypoglycemia can get worse and cause confusion, clumsiness, or fainting. Severe hypoglycemia can lead to seizures, coma, and even death.

 

What are the symptoms of hypoglycemia?

Hypoglycemia causes symptoms such as:

  • hunger
  • shakiness
  • nervousness
  • sweating
  • dizziness or light-headedness
  • sleepiness
  • confusion
  • difficulty speaking
  • anxiety
  • weakness

Hypoglycemia can also happen during sleep. Some signs of hypoglycemia during sleep include:

  • crying out or having nightmares
  • finding pajamas or sheets damp from perspiration
  • feeling tired, irritable, or confused after waking up

Being prepared for hypoglycemia

People who use insulin or take an oral diabetes medication that can cause low blood glucose should always be prepared to prevent and treat low blood glucose by:

  • learning what can trigger low blood glucose levels
  • having their blood glucose meter available to test glucose levels; frequent testing may be critical for those with hypoglycemia unawareness, particularly before driving a car or engaging in any hazardous activity
  • always having several servings of quick-fix foods or drinks handy
  • wearing a medical identification bracelet or necklace
  • planning what to do if they develop severe hypoglycemia
  • telling their family, friends, and coworkers about the symptoms of hypoglycemia and how they can help if needed

 

Published on March 16, 2015.

 

Source: National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. November 6, 2012

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