iabetic coma is a life-threatening disorder that can happen when blood sugar is very high or very low. Learn about its causes, treatment and prevention.
A diabetic coma is a life-threatening disorder that causes unconsciousness. If you have diabetes, dangerously high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) or dangerously low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) can lead to a diabetic coma.
If you go into a diabetic coma, you're alive — but you can't wake up or respond purposefully to sights, sounds or other types of stimulation. If it's not treated, a diabetic coma can result in death.
The idea of a diabetic coma can be scary, but you can take steps to help prevent it. One of the most important is to follow your diabetes treatment plan.
Symptoms of high blood sugar or low blood sugar usually develop before a diabetic coma.
If your blood sugar level is too high, you may have:
If your blood sugar is too low, you may have:
Some people, especially those who've had diabetes for a long time, develop a condition known as hypoglycemia unawareness. That means they don't have warning symptoms that signal a drop in blood sugar.
If you have any symptoms of high or low blood sugar, test your blood sugar right away. Based on the test results, follow your diabetes treatment. If you don't start to feel better quickly, or you start to feel worse, get medical care right away.
A diabetic coma is a medical emergency. If you have symptoms of high or low blood sugar and you think you might pass out, call 911 or your local emergency number.
If you're with someone with diabetes who has passed out, call for emergency help. Tell the emergency personnel that the unconscious person has diabetes.
Blood sugar that's either too high or too low for too long may cause the following serious health problems, all of which can lead to a diabetic coma.
Diabetic ketoacidosis. If your muscle cells become starved for energy, your body may start breaking down fat for energy. This process forms toxic acids known as ketones. If you have ketones (measured in blood or urine) and high blood sugar, the condition is called diabetic ketoacidosis. If it's not treated, it can lead to a diabetic coma.
Diabetic ketoacidosis is most common in people who have type 1 diabetes. But it can also occur in people who have type 2 diabetes or gestational diabetes.
Diabetic hyperosmolar syndrome. If your blood sugar level goes above 600 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), or 33.3 millimoles per liter (mmol/L), the condition is called diabetic hyperosmolar syndrome.
When blood sugar is very high, the extra sugar passes from the blood into the urine. That triggers a process that draws a large amount of fluid from the body. If it isn't treated, this can lead to life-threatening dehydration and a diabetic coma.
Anyone who has diabetes is at risk of a diabetic coma, but the following factors can increase the risk:
If it is not treated, a diabetic coma can lead to permanent brain damage and death.
Good day-to-day control of your diabetes can help you prevent a diabetic coma. Keep these tips in mind:
Consider a continuous glucose monitor, especially if you have trouble maintaining stable blood sugar levels or you don't feel symptoms of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia unawareness).
Continuous glucose monitors are devices that use a small sensor inserted underneath the skin to track trends in blood sugar levels and send the information to a wireless device, such as a smart phone.
These monitors can alert you when your blood sugar is dangerously low or if it is dropping too fast. But you still need to test your blood sugar levels using a blood glucose meter even if you're using one of these monitors. Continuous glucose monitors are more expensive than other glucose monitoring methods, but they may help you control your glucose better.
If you experience a diabetic coma, it is very important that it's diagnosed as soon as possible. The emergency medical team will do a physical exam and may ask those who are with you about your medical history. If you have diabetes, it's a good idea to wear a medical identification bracelet or necklace.
At the hospital, you may need lab tests to measure:
Diabetic coma requires emergency medical treatment. The type of treatment depends on whether your blood sugar level is too high or too low.
If your blood sugar level is too high, you may need:
If your blood sugar level is too low, you may be given a shot of glucagon. This will cause your blood sugar level to quickly rise. Intravenous dextrose also may be given to raise blood glucose levels.
A diabetic coma is a medical emergency that you won't have time to prepare for. If you feel symptoms of extremely high or low blood sugar, call 911 or your local emergency number to make sure help is on the way before you pass out.
If you're with someone with diabetes who has passed out or is acting strange, possibly as if they have had too much alcohol, call for immediate medical help.
If you have no training in diabetes care, wait for the emergency care team to arrive.
If you are familiar with diabetes care, test the unconscious person's blood sugar and follow these steps: