Hyperglycemia, or high blood glucose, is a serious health concern if you are not diabetic—but it’s an even bigger problem if you are. Learn about what’s happening to your body during hyperglycemia, and what you can do.
High blood glucose (hyperglycemia) can cause major health complications in people with diabetes. Several factors can contribute to hyperglycemia—including poor food and physical activity choices, illness or disease, not getting the right dosage glucose-lowering medication, and accidentally taking the wrong medicine.
If you experience symptoms of hyperglycemia—see below—it’s important that you check your blood glucose level to verify that your blood glucose is the cause of your symptoms. In most cases, you will be able to treat your elevated glucose levels without seeking emergency care. But ignoring your high blood glucose numbers isn’t an option—leaving the condition untreated can lead to more serious problems, such as diabetic ketoacidosis, hyperosmolar syndrome, and even diabetic coma. Over time, chronic hyperglycemia can permanently damage your nerves, kidneys, eyes, and heart.
Hyperglycemia rarely causes noticeable symptoms until glucose levels are significantly elevated, around 200 mg/dL or higher. Symptoms can develop over several days or weeks, and the longer the condition is left untreated, the more severe the problem may become. The signs and symptoms of hyperglycemia include:
- blood glucose level greater than 180 mg/dL
- blurry vision
- difficulty concentrating
- frequent urination
- high blood glucose
- high levels of sugar in the urine
- increased fatigue
- increased thirst
- weight loss
If left untreated, prolonged hyperglycemia can lead to:
- a build up of ketones in your blood and urine
- abdominal pain
- impaired vision
- erectile dysfunction
- fruity-smelling breath
- loss of hair on lower extremities
- nausea and vomiting
- nerve damage that can cause cold or insensitive feet
- slow-healing cuts and sores
- vaginal and skin infection
A number of conditions or factors can contribute to hyperglycemia, including:
- Being inactive.
- Eating too many grams of carbohydrates without adequate insulin to help your body use the sugar in those carbs.
- Having more stress than usual—from an illness or from outside sources such as family conflict, relationship problems, or financial concerns. Stress triggers hormones that can cause your blood sugar to rise. Even people who are not diabetic may develop hyperglycemia during periods of severe illness for this reason.
- Having too little insulin (type 1 diabetes).
- Not giving yourself enough insulin or oral diabetes medicine (types 1 and 2 diabetes).
- Not injecting insulin properly or using expired insulin.
- Skipping or forgetting insulin or medicine.
Monitoring Glucose Levels
An important part of managing your diabetes is checking your blood glucose level often—and then recording that number in a notebook or blood glucose log so you and your doctor can monitor your treatment. Knowing when your blood glucose levels are approaching a critical point will help you begin treatment before more significant problems arise.
Exercise is one of the best and most effective ways to keep your blood glucose levels where they should be, and lower them if they get high.
An important note: If your blood glucose is above 240 mg/dl, it’s vital that you check your urine for ketones. If you have ketones, do not exercise. Call your doctor instead. Exercising when ketones are in your body may cause your blood glucose level to go even higher.
Drink More Water
Analyze Your Eating Habits
Meet with a dietitian or nutritionist and work together to construct a healthy, interesting selection of meals that can help prevent higher blood glucose levels.
Depending on your personal health history and your experiences with hyperglycemia, your doctor may wish to change the amount, type, or timing of your diabetes medication. Do not adjust your medicines without first talking to your doctor or nurse educator.
In rare cases, emergency treatment is needed to lower your blood sugar. This type of treatment usually includes replacing fluids lost during excessive urination; electrolyte replacement, to replace minerals in your body lost as a result of inadequate insulin; and insulin therapy, to reverse the buildup of ketones in your blood.
If you have a history of hyperglycemia, talk with your doctor about safe, practical ways to control your blood glucose. Cutting back on the amount of certain foods you eat might help, as can changing your medication or insulin.
Untreated and chronic hyperglycemia can cause serious complications. These include:
- nerve damage (neuropathy)
- kidney damage (nephropathy) or kidney failure
- cardiovascular disease
- clouding of the normally-clear lens of your eye (cataract)
- foot problems caused by damaged nerves and poor blood flow
- skin problems, such as bacterial and fungal infections
If your blood sugar goes high enough or is too high for a prolonged period of time, you may begin developing symptoms of two serious conditions. They are:
This is a buildup of ketones in your blood and urine. It can be poisonous and might lead to a life-threatening diabetic coma.
Learn more about ketoacidosis.
Diabetic Hyperosmolar Syndrome
If insulin is present but not working properly, blood glucose levels may get as high as 600 mg/dL. The body cannot use glucose or fat for energy, so the glucose is dumped into the urine, which causes more frequent urination. If left untreated, hyperosmolar syndrome may lead to life-threatening dehydration and even coma.
Good diabetes management and careful monitoring of your blood glucose are both very effective means for preventing hyperglycemia—or stopping it before it gets worse.
Test and record your blood glucose levels on a regular basis each day. Share this information with your doctor at every appointment.
Know how many carbohydrates you’re eating in a day, and strive to stay in the range approved by your doctor or nurse educator. Keep this information with your blood sugar levels.
Be Diabetes Smart
Have a plan of action if and when your blood glucose reaches certain levels. Take your medication as prescribed, being consistent about the amount and timing of your meals and snacks.
Wear Medical Identification
Medical bracelets or necklaces can help alert emergency responders to your diabetes if there is a greater problem.