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Insulin Overdose: Signs and Risks

Insulin Facts

Read Video Transcript »

Managing Your Diabetes with Insulin Pumps and Continuous Glucose Monitors (CGM)

Get the inside scoop on how these devices work, and see how they can help you manage your type 1 diabetes.

Having type 1 diabetes means your body is unable to make insulin, so managing the condition means taking steps to monitor and regulate your blood sugar. Insulin injections used to be the only way to take insulin, but new medical advances have made managing type 1 diabetes easier than ever.

An insulin pump is one alternative to injections. This small device is worn 24/7 and injects insulin into your body. The pump is programmed to deliver insulin on a schedule. It can either deliver insulin as a steady stream of small doses or as a larger dose, which you would control, usually around mealtimes.

Insulin pumps have three main parts. The reservoir stores the insulin, the tubing transports the insulin, and the cannula delivers the insulin.

One of the benefits of wearing or using an insulin pump is not having to take multiple daily insulin injections. The pump helps to properly regulate your blood sugar levels and reduces the risk of having your levels get too low.

Continuous glucose monitors, or CGMs, are used to monitor blood sugar levels. Unlike an insulin pump, CGMs don’t inject insulin. Instead, this small wearable system tracks your blood sugar levels, and lets you know if you need to make any adjustments to your insulin or your food intake. To calibrate the CGM, you’ll still need to do at least one fingerstick blood sugar reading every 12 hours.

CGM monitors also have three parts. The sensor determines how much sugar is in your blood, the transmitter gathers that information, and the receiver records and displays your blood sugar numbers.

The main benefit of wearing a CGM system is always knowing your sugar levels and being able to predict when you’ll need to give yourself insulin.

Deciding which type of insulin device is best for you depends on your condition, your lifestyle, and your individual needs. It’s a personal decision that you should discuss with your healthcare team.

If you’re interested in knowing more about how to best manage your diabetes, take a look at the information we have here at Healthline or make an appointment with your doctor.

Highlights

  1. The correct dose for basal insulin, which is the insulin that keeps your blood sugar steady all day, depends on many things, such as the time of day and if you are insulin-resistant.
  2. An excess of insulin in the bloodstream causes cells in your body to absorb more sugar (glucose) from your blood. This condition is called hypoglycemia.
  3. People who have low blood sugar levels are advised to consume 15 grams of a fast-digesting carbohydrate, such as glucose tablets or a high-sugar food, immediately.

Before the discovery of insulin, diabetes was a death sentence. Patients couldn’t use the nutrients in their food and would become thin and malnourished. Strict diets and reduced sugar intake could only keep them alive for a few additional years.

In the early 1920s, Canadian surgeon Dr. Frederick Banting and medical student Charles Best discovered that insulin could help normalize blood sugar levels. Their discovery garnered them the Nobel Prize and allowed people with diabetes to live a much longer and more normal life.

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) states that today, 12 percent of adults with diabetes take insulin only, while 14 percent take both insulin and an oral medication. Taken as prescribed, insulin is a lifesaver. Too much of it, though, can cause significant side effects and, in some cases, death.

According to a 2004 study, insulin overdoses are common. While most are intentional overdoses, many are accidental. Understand the signs and risks of taking too much insulin.

How to prevent and handle an insulin overdose »

Determining Dosage

Like all medications, you need to take insulin in the right amounts to provide benefits without harm. The correct dose for basal insulin, which is the insulin that keeps your blood sugar steady all day, depends on many things, such the time of day and if you are insulin resistant.  The correct dose of meal time insulin for anyone with diabetes depends on a number of factors, including:

  • pre-meal blood sugar
  • carbohydrate content of the meal
  • fasting blood glucoseactivity planned either before or after your meal
  • genderyour target post-meal blood sugar goals

Insulin medications also come in different types. Some are fast-acting, and will work within about 15 minutes. This is the type of insulin you take before meals. Other types of insulin are more lasting. They take longer to affect blood sugar levels but then provide protection for 24 hours.

The strength or potency of the drug may also vary. The most common strength is U-100, or 100 units of insulin per milliliter of fluid. Patients who are more insulin-resistant may require more than that, so the drug is available at up to U-500 strength.

All these factors come into play in determining the right dosage. Doctors provide basic guidance, but accidents can happen.

Accidental Insulin Overdose

Accidentally overdosing on insulin is not as difficult as it may seem. You might overdose accidentally if you:

  • forget a previous injection and take another before it’s necessary
  • are distracted and accidentally inject too much
  • are unfamiliar with a new product and use it incorrectly
  • forget to eat or suffer an unexpected mealtime delay
  • exercise vigorously without snacking
  • take someone else’s dosage by mistake
  • take a morning dosage at night, or vice versa

Realizing you’ve overdosed can be a very scary situation. Understand the symptoms of overdose to make sure you receive the treatment you need as soon as possible.

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Symptoms of Insulin Overdose

An excess of insulin in the bloodstream causes cells in your body to absorb more sugar (glucose) from your blood. The liver also produces less glucose. These two things work together to create dangerously low glucose levels in your blood. This condition is also called hypoglycemia.

Your blood needs the right amount of glucose for your body to operate properly. Glucose is the body’s fuel. Without it, it’s like a car running out of gas. The severity of the situation depends on how low the blood sugar level goes. It also depends on the person, because everyone reacts differently. Potential symptoms of low blood sugar include:

  • sweating, clamminess, chills
  • lightheadedness or dizziness and mild confusion
  • anxiety or nervousness, shakiness
  • rapid heartbeat
  • hunger
  • irritability
  • double vision or blurred vision
  • tingling in the lips or around the mouth

These signs indicate a potentially mild case of hypoglycemia; however, they still require immediate attention before they lead to dangerously low blood sugar.  People who have low blood sugar levels are advised to consume 15 grams of a fast digesting carbohydrate, such as glucose tablets or a high-sugar food immediately. High-glucose foods include:

  • raisins
  • soda
  • fruit juice
  • honey
  • candy

Your symptoms should improve within 15 minutes. If they don’t, or if a test shows your levels are still low, repeat the above steps until your blood sugar is above 70 mg/dL. If your symptoms still don’t improve, seek medical help immediately. Be sure to eat a meal after treating a low blood sugar reaction.

More severe symptoms of hypoglycemia, sometimes referred to as diabetic shock or insulin shock, include:

  • concentration problems
  • seizures
  • unconsciousness
  • death

If a person becomes unconscious due to too much insulin, call 911. All people on insulin should have glucagon available. Family members or emergency personnel will typically need to inject glucagon, which counteracts the effects of insulin.

Intentional Overdose

In a 2009 study, researchers acknowledged that people with diabetes are at an increased risk of depression and suicide. Sometimes, a person who is depressed or suffering from mental illness may take an insulin overdose on purpose.

If you or a loved one is experiencing depression, speak to a doctor as soon as possible. Also, make sure you know the emergency signs and symptoms of insulin overdose. It may help to save someone’s life.

Emergency Help

Whether it’s done by accident or intentionally, insulin overdose can be an extremely dangerous situation. Though some instances of high insulin and low blood sugar can be fixed with a little sugar, serious symptoms should be treated as an emergency.

If you are with someone who is experiencing severe symptoms, take action right away. Call 911 and administer glucagon if you have it available.

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