Most people with diabetes will, at one time or another, experience low blood glucose, also known as hypoglycemia. It is unpleasant at best and, if untreated, can be downright dangerous. Hypoglycemia can lead to unconsciousness, coma, and even death. That said, you can learn to prevent and treat lows. Here are the experts’ six top tips for staying safe.
1. Learn the warning signs. Hypoglycemia usually sets in with some telltale signals: shakiness, dizziness, hunger, mood change, increased sweating, headache, and pale skin color. If you experience any of these symptoms, check your blood glucose to make sure you’re not having a low (usually, a reading below 70 mg/dl).
Understanding these symptoms can help you treat a low before it gets out of hand. More serious signs include behavior changes, confusion, seizures, and even loss of consciousness. Some people lack the early signs and may progress to these more serious and life-threatening situations without warning. This is known as hypoglycemia unawareness. If you feel you fit this description, talk to your doctor as soon as possible to see if you may need to relax your blood glucose targets to avoid hypoglycemia and stay safe.
2. Keep carbs on hand. Since hypoglycemia can seemingly come out of nowhere, it’s important to keep fast-acting carbohydrate with you and in places where you can easily get to it—in your home, car, office, and anywhere else you regularly go. A well-placed pack of glucose tabs or a tube of glucose gel (both available at drugstores) can bring your blood glucose back to normal before things get out of control.
Fruit juice and sugary (nondiet) soda can also be good sources of quick glucose if readily available. Your best choices will be those that provide a reliable source of roughly 15-gram servings of carbohydrate. Skip high-fat candies like chocolate; the fat prevents your blood glucose from rising as quickly.
3. Treat immediately. You’re shaky and confused. You know you’re hypoglycemic, so the next step is to treat immediately with carbs. Use the 15-15 method, unless your health care provider has instructed you otherwise: Treat your low with 15 grams of simple carbs, wait 15 minutes, then check your blood glucose again. If you’re still hypoglycemic, eat another 15 grams of carbs. Test and treat until your blood glucose is at 70 mg/dl or above.
4. Test before driving. Since hypoglycemia can impair your judgment, reaction time, and motor skills, it’s unsafe to drive while your glucose levels are low. It’s essential to be prepared to treat hypoglycemia. Keep yourself and everyone around you safe by testing your blood glucose every time you get behind the wheel (and regularly on long drives). If your blood glucose is low, treat until it rises to a normal level. If you think you are having a low while driving, pull over right away and treat.
5. Make your condition known. You might be reluctant to reveal your diabetes to friends and coworkers, and you’re under no obligation to do so. But in an emergency, someone needs to know what to do. Teach selected friends and colleagues how to help you in case you have low blood glucose and can’t treat yourself. Tell them the type of carbs used to treat lows and what to do should you become unconscious. If you pass out from hypoglycemia, you should never be given food or drink (or insulin). Instead, friends and colleagues should be instructed to call 911 and inject glucagon, a prescription drug that raises blood glucose.
6. Wear a medical alert bracelet. Even those who are well prepared for lows may find themselves in situations where they’re unable to treat. If you become unconscious from low blood glucose without any friends or family around, or if you’re in an accident and require treatment, medical alert jewelry lets health care professionals know that you have diabetes.