More than 20 million Americans have diabetes, and approximately six million of these individuals don’t know they have it. The best way to prevent a diabetic emergency is to manage the disease through a healthy lifestyle, including exercise, a balanced diet and regular checks of blood glucose levels.
When diabetics have too much or too little insulin in their bodies, they can experience life-threatening emergencies that must be responded to quickly. Too much insulin can cause low sugar level, called hypoglycemia. This can lead to insulin shock. Symptoms of hypoglycemia include weakness, drowsiness, rapid pulse, fast breathing, pale and sweaty skin, headache or trembling, odorless breath, hunger and numbness in the hands and feet.
When a diabetic doesn’t have enough insulin, this can cause a high level of sugar, called hyperglycemia. High blood sugar can lead to a diabetic coma. Symptoms of hyperglycemia include weak and rapid pulse, nausea, deep and sighing breaths, an unsteady gait, confusion, flushed, warm or dry skin, an odor of nail polish or sweet apple, drowsiness and a gradual loss of consciousness.
If a diabetic is unconscious or unresponsive, call 911 immediately. If an unconscious person shows life-threatening conditions, place the person horizontally on a flat surface, check for breathing, pulse and circulation, and administer CPR while waiting for professional medical assistance.
If the diabetic is not unconscious and seems alert, provide assistance by getting sugar or the necessary prescription medicine. If the diabetic is conscious but appears confused or disoriented, administer food or drink and call 911 immediately.
Dr. Eric Guerrant is medical director of Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center’s Emergency Department.