What You Should Know About Recovery from Diabetic Coma

Medically reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D, MSN, RN, CRNA on April 27, 2016Written by James Roland on April 27, 2016

Overview

A diabetic coma occurs when a person with diabetes loses consciousness. It can occur in people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

A diabetic coma occurs when blood sugar levels become either too low or too high. The cells in your body require glucose to function. High blood sugar, or hyperglycemia, can make you feel lightheaded and lose consciousness. Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, can cause dehydration to the point where you may lose consciousness.

Usually, you can prevent hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia from progressing to a diabetic coma. If a diabetic coma occurs, it’s likely that your doctor can balance your blood glucose levels and restore your consciousness and health quickly if they can respond to your condition in a timely manner.

You can also slip into a diabetic coma if you develop diabetic ketoacidosis. Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) is a buildup of chemicals called ketones in your blood.

Symptoms

Hypoglycemia

The symptoms of hypoglycemia may include:

  • headache
  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • confusion
  • heart palpitations
  • shakiness

Hyperglycemia

If you have hyperglycemia, you may experience noticeably increased thirst and you may urinate more frequently. A blood test would also reveal higher levels of glucose in your blood stream. A urine test can also show that your glucose levels are too high.

DKA causes high levels of blood glucose. The symptoms also include increased thirst and a frequent need to urinate. Other symptoms of elevated ketone levels include:

  • feeling tired
  • having an upset stomach
  • having flushed or dry skin

If you have more severe diabetic coma symptoms, call 911. Severe symptoms may include:

  • vomiting
  • difficulty breathing
  • confusion
  • weakness
  • dizziness

A diabetic coma is a medical emergency. It can lead to brain damage or death if you don’t get treatment.

Treatment

Treating hyperglycemia requires intravenous fluids to improve fluid levels throughout your body. You may also receive insulin to help your cells absorb the extra circulating glucose. If your sodium, potassium, or phosphate levels are low, you may get supplements to help bring them up to healthy levels. The treatment will be similar for DKA.

A glucagon injection will help increase your blood sugar levels if you’re experiencing hypoglycemia.

Recovery

Once your blood glucose levels are in a healthy range, you should start to feel better almost immediately. If you’ve been unconscious, you should come around soon after treatment begins.

There shouldn’t be any lasting effects if you got treatment soon after the symptoms appeared. If the symptoms occurred for a while before treatment or if you were in a diabetic coma for several hours or longer, you could experience some brain damage. An untreated diabetic coma may also result in death.

People who get emergency treatment for a diabetic coma usually recover fully. Your doctor may recommend that you wear a medical identification bracelet that explains the nature of your diabetes and other health concerns. This may help ensure you get the proper treatment for future problems quickly.

If you experience a diabetic coma without knowing you have diabetes, your doctor will work with you to develop a diabetes treatment plan. This will include medications, as well as recommendations for diet and exercise.

Outlook

Call 911 if you see someone losing consciousness for any reason. It may be a temporary fainting spell due to a sudden drop in blood pressure or an anxiety attack. If you know the person has diabetes, tell the 911 operator. This may affect how paramedics treat the person on the scene.

If the person hasn’t passed out and the situation isn’t an emergency, a home blood glucose test can reveal whether there’s too much or too little glucose in their system. If glucose levels are above 240 milligrams per deciliter, a home urine test for ketones is appropriate.

If their ketone levels are high, bring them to a doctor. If their ketone levels are stable, then exercise, a diet adjustment, or medication may be enough to help bring down blood glucose levels.

Prevention

If you have diabetes, it’s important to pay attention to your blood glucose levels and your diet every day. The key to preventing a diabetic coma is proper blood glucose management. This means taking your insulin and testing your blood glucose and ketones as your doctor recommends.

You should also pay close attention to your carbohydrate intake. This is true for people who have type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Consider working with a dietitian who’s a certified diabetes educator. They can help you create a diabetes meal plan.

You should know what to do if you miss a dose of insulin or other diabetes medication. Ask your doctor about that, as well as what to do if you start to feel symptoms of hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia.

Diabetes can affect other parts of your health. Uncontrolled diabetes can harm your cardiovascular health in particular. As you age, your body’s chemistry changes. Be prepared to change medication doses or adjust your diet along the way.

A diabetic coma is an unusual event, but it’s common enough that you should be aware that the risk exists. Take steps to manage your diabetes properly and ask your doctor any questions you have about how to prevent a diabetic coma.

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