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Insulin Shock: Warning Signs and Treatment Options

What is insulin shock?

If you have diabetes and you forget to eat after taking an insulin shot, you may end up with too much insulin your blood. In turn, this can lead to a mild form of hypoglycemia, also called low blood sugar. If an individual ignores mild hypoglycemia, takes too much insulin by mistake, or misses a meal completely, a person with diabetes may suffer a much more serious condition called insulin shock.

Insulin shock is a diabetic emergency. It involves frightening symptoms that, if left untreated, can lead to diabetic coma, brain damage, and even death.

How insulin works

When we consume food or beverages that contain carbohydrates, the body converts them into glucose. Glucose is a type of sugar that fuels the body, giving it the energy it needs to perform everyday functions. Insulin is a hormone that works like a key. It opens the door in the body’s cells so that the cells can absorb and use glucose as fuel.

People with diabetes may lack enough insulin or have cells that aren’t able to use insulin as they should. If the cells of the body aren’t able to absorb the glucose properly, it causes excess glucose in the blood. This is called “high blood glucose,” which is linked with a number of health issues. It can cause eye and foot problems, heart disease, stroke, kidney problems, and nerve damage.

Insulin shots help people with diabetes use glucose more efficiently. Taking an insulin shot before eating helps the body absorb and use the glucose from the food. The result is a more balanced and healthy blood sugar level. Usually, it works great. But sometimes, things go wrong.

What causes insulin shock?

Having too much insulin in your blood can lead to having too little glucose. If your blood sugar falls too low, your body no longer has enough fuel to carry out its regular functions. In insulin shock, your body becomes so starved for fuel that it begins to shut down.

If you have diabetes and you use insulin to help control your blood sugar, you can still end up with excess amounts of insulin in your blood. You may inject too much insulin or miss a meal after injecting insulin; either of these situations can throw your system out of balance.

Other possible causes include:

  • not eating enough
  • exercising more than usual
  • drinking alcohol without eating food

How does insulin shock affect the body?

If your blood sugar drops a bit below normal, you may experience mild to moderate symptoms, including:

  • dizziness
  • shaking
  • sweating or clamminess
  • hunger
  • nervousness or anxiety
  • irritability
  • rapid pulse

At this stage, you can usually take immediate steps to recover. You might eat 15 grams of a quick acting carbohydrate, such as some glucose tablets or high-sugar options like fruit juice, raisins, honey, or candy. The idea is to give insulin something to work with, which will help stabilize your blood sugar and reduce symptoms. If you feel better within 15 minutes, you’re likely on your way to a full recovery.  If not, you would continue to treat with 15 grams of carbohydrate until your blood sugar is up and then be sure to eat a meal.

If you’re experiencing insulin shock, you may have some of the above symptoms, but they will progress more quickly. Plummeting blood sugar can also cause:

  • headaches
  • confusion
  • fainting
  • poor coordination; tripping and falling
  • muscle tremors
  • seizures
  • coma

Insulin shock can also happen in the middle of the night. In that case, the symptoms may include:

  • nightmares
  • crying out in your sleep
  • waking up confused or very irritable
  • very heavy sweating
  • aggressive behavior

Treating insulin shock

Mild to moderate hypoglycemia can normally be treated by eating sugar. If you start experiencing the symptoms of severe hypoglycemia, however, it’s time for more aggressive treatments. If you or someone near you begins to experience insulin shock, take these steps:

  • Call 911, especially if the person is unconscious.
  • Get sugar into the body immediately, as explained above. Try a glucose pack or sugar rubbed on the gums and under the tongue.
  • Administer an injection of glucagon if the person is unconscious. If you don’t have glucagon, emergency personnel will have some.  Do not give an unconscious person something to swallow as they may choke on it.

How to prevent insulin shock

Insulin shock is not a pleasant experience. But there are things you can do to prevent it from happening.

Follow these tips to reduce your risk of experiencing severe hypoglycemia and related problems:

  • Keep glucose tablets with you or carry hard candy for times when your blood sugar dips too low.
  • Always eat after taking your insulin shot.
  • Make sure you ask your doctor how to use a new medication.
  • Take a sugary snack with you when exercising. Talk to your dietitian about the best things to eat before exercise.
  • Be cautious when drinking alcohol. Talk to your doctor about what’s best.
  • Be cautious after vigorous exercise as it can lower blood sugar for hours after the workout.
  • Test your blood sugar often.
  • If you experience symptoms while driving, pull over immediately.
  • Inform your family and friends of the symptoms of hypoglycemia so they can help you if you start experiencing symptoms.
  • Ask your doctor for glucagon. All people on insulin should always have glucogon available.
  • Wear a medical ID so emergency technicians can treat you quickly.

With the proper precautions, you can manage your diabetes and your insulin medications to keep your blood sugar levels steady.

More Type 1 Diabetes Resources