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When your blood sugar is too high, administering fast-acting insulin can usually bring your blood sugar down the fastest. Exercising can also help lower blood sugar.

But there are times when it’s best to go to the hospital. If you’re experiencing diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), you should seek immediate medical attention.

DKA is a serious complication of type 1 diabetes, and, much less commonly, type 2 diabetes. It occurs when your blood sugar is very high and acidic substances called ketones build up to dangerous levels in your body.

Symptoms of DKA can include frequent urination, extreme thirst, nausea or vomiting, and stomach pain.

You should also seek medical attention if you’re experiencing symptoms of dangerously high blood sugar. This can include excessive thirst, having to go to the bathroom frequently, nausea, and stomach pain.

If you aren’t sure what to do, call your doctor to get instructions on administering an insulin dose and whether you need to seek medical attention.

If your blood sugar levels are high, there are several methods you can use to lower your blood sugar quickly:

  • Administer insulin: Talk to your doctor about how much rapid-acting insulin you should administer when your blood sugar is high. Check your blood sugar about 15 to 30 minutes after giving insulin to ensure your blood sugar is going down and that it’s not too low.
  • Exercise: Physical activity causes the body to demand glucose for energy. As a result, the cells deliver glucose to the muscles, and blood sugar levels usually drop. You’ll have to engage in exercise that gets your heart pumping faster than usual. For example, you can walk for exercise, but it must be at a fast enough rate.
  • Drink water: Drinking water can help your body release more urine and therefore blood glucose. However, you shouldn’t drink excessive amounts of water if you have heart or kidney problems.
  • Eat a high-protein snack: While it may seem odd to eat to lower blood sugar, high-protein foods can help to stabilize blood sugar. It’s important the food is high in protein — not in carbohydrates. Examples include a handful of almonds or a piece of turkey. Note that this method won’t lower your blood sugar as fast as insulin will.

If you have type 1 diabetes, your doctor will likely recommend you check your blood sugar before exercising.

If your blood sugar is higher than 250 mg/dL, you should check your urine for ketones. You can do this with at-home urine ketone testing kits, which are available online.

If ketones are present, you shouldn’t exercise. This is a symptom that your body is breaking down fats for energy, and your blood sugar levels will actually increase when you exercise.

High blood sugars can be very concerning because your body can start burning fat for energy instead of blood glucose. This can cause conditions such as diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) and hyperglycemic hyperosmolar syndrome (HHS). These conditions are medical emergencies and can be fatal if left untreated.

Symptoms that can indicate you should go to the emergency room include:

  • blood sugar level that is 250 mg/dL or higher
  • urine dipstick test that’s positive for moderate to heavy ketones
  • confusion
  • excessive thirst
  • having to go to the bathroom frequently
  • nausea
  • shortness of breath
  • stomach pain
  • vomiting

High blood sugar levels can cause a fluid imbalance in the body and can cause the blood to become acidic in a manner that doesn’t support life. Treatments for these conditions include administering intravenous insulin on a continuous basis and giving IV fluids to correct dehydration.

When your blood glucose levels are frequently elevated, you’re at greater risk for complications of high blood sugar. Examples of these include:

  • nerve damage or neuropathy that may affect sensations in the feet and hands
  • retinopathy or damage to the blood vessels in the eyes that affect vision
  • increased risks for kidney problems
  • increased risks for heart problems

Taking steps to keep your blood sugar at target levels can help to minimize the likelihood that these complications will occur.

Talk to your doctor about your blood sugar levels and when you should seek emergency medical attention.

Here are some general guidelines for blood sugar ranges:

  • Less than 100 mg/dL: Consider eating a small snack with about 15 grams of carbs to keep your blood sugar from getting too low. Examples include a half cup of fruit juice, a small piece of fruit, or four crackers. Glucose tabs are also a good choice.
  • 100 to 160 mg/dL: Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, this is a good goal range for your blood sugar.
  • 180 to 250 mg/dL: You’re getting close to the danger zone for higher blood sugar levels. Consider some of the tips for lowering your blood sugar level. If you’re about to exercise, this is an acceptable range.
  • 250 mg/dL or higher: Check your urine for ketones using a dipstick. If ketones are present, call your doctor to see if you need to seek medical attention.

Sometimes, doctors recommend you maintain tighter or higher blood sugar goals. That’s why it’s important to talk with your doctor about goals for your glucose levels.

Ideally, you can manage your diabetes in a way that keeps your blood sugar levels from ever getting too high. Here are several ways to accomplish this:

Eat a consistent diet

Maintain a steady carbohydrate intake, avoiding “empty calorie” foods, such processed foods, whenever possible. Eat a mix of:

  • whole grains
  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • lean proteins

Eat plenty of dietary fiber

This helps keep your blood sugar levels steady. Examples of good sources of dietary fiber include:

  • whole grain foods
  • fruit
  • vegetables
  • legumes

Get consistent exercise

Engage in physical activity that gets your heart pumping and body moving at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week.

Reduce stress

Stress can increase your blood sugar. Try things like:

  • meditation
  • journaling
  • listening to music
  • taking a short walk
  • any other activity you especially enjoy

Keep yourself hydrated

Drink plenty of water. If your urine is pale yellow, you’re likely hydrated. Avoid sugary soft drinks, juices, and teas.

Get a good night’s rest

High-quality, restorative sleep can help reduce stress and balance blood sugar levels. Turn off your electronic devices an hour before bed and sleep in a cool, dark, and quiet room for a better night’s rest.

See your doctor

Make sure you see your doctor to test your A1C levels at recommended intervals. This is a measure of how consistent your blood sugar is over a three-month period. Knowing your A1C can provide clues as to how effectively you’re managing your diabetes.

Maintain a healthy bodyweight

Losing excess fat can reduce the amount of metabolically active tissue in your body. This makes blood sugar levels easier to maintain. If you’re having difficulty managing your weight, talk to your doctor or consider seeing a dietitian for tips specific to your dietary needs.

Stick to your medication and insulin regimen

Skipping a dose of medication or insulin can be harmful to your body and increase your blood sugar level. It’s important to stick to your treatment plan and follow your doctor’s instructions for taking your medication.

Managing diabetes requires a careful balance of education, vigilance, and daily management. It’s natural that new challenges and questions will come up as you work to manage your diabetes.

Examples of when you should see your doctor or a certified diabetes educator include:

  • if you’ve just received a diagnosis of diabetes
  • if your blood sugar levels are consistently near 250 or higher
  • if you’re having symptoms of chronic high blood sugar, such as loss of sensation in the fingers or toes

If you do not currently see an endocrinologist, a doctor who specializes in diabetes, you can find one by searching the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists website.

You can find a certified diabetes educator by visiting the National Certification Board for Diabetes Educators website and searching by zip code.

Administering insulin and exercising are two of the most common ways to get blood sugar levels down. However, if you have ketones in your urine or symptoms of excessively high blood sugar, go to the emergency room.

If you’re having difficulty managing with your diabetes, you can call the American Diabetes Association helpline at 1-800-DIABETES for referrals and advice.