Diabetes: Overview

Diabetes is a long-term health problem. It means your body doesn't make enough insulin. Or it may mean that your body can't use the insulin it makes. Insulin is a hormone in your body. It lets blood sugar (glucose) reach the cells in your body. All of your cells need glucose for fuel.

When you have diabetes, the glucose in your blood builds up because it can't get into the cells. This buildup is called high blood sugar (hyperglycemia).

Your blood sugar level depends on several things. It depends on what kind of food you eat and how much of it you eat. It also depends on how much exercise you get, and how much insulin you have in your body. Eating too much of the wrong kinds of food or not taking diabetes medicine on time can cause high blood sugar. Infections can cause high blood sugar even if you are taking medicines correctly.

These things can also cause low blood sugar:

  • Missing meals

  • Not eating enough food

  • Unplanned or heavy exercise

  • Taking too much diabetes medicine

Diabetes can cause serious problems over time if you don't get treated. These problems include:

  • Heart disease

  • Stroke

  • Kidney failure

  • Blindness

  • Nerve pain

  • Loss of feeling in the legs and feet

  • Tissue death (gangrene)

By keeping your blood sugar under control you can prevent or delay these problems.

Normal blood sugar levels are 80mg/dL to 100 mg/dL before a meal. They are less than 180 mg/dL in the 1 to 2 hours after a meal.

Home care

Follow these guidelines when caring for yourself at home:

  • Follow the diet your healthcare provider gives you. Take insulin or other diabetes medicine exactly as told to.

  • Watch your blood sugar as you are told to. Keep a log of your results. This will help your provider change your medicines to keep your blood sugar under control.

  • Try to reach your ideal weight. You may be able to cut back on or not have to take diabetes medicine if you eat the right foods and get exercise.

  • Don't smoke. Smoking worsens the effects of diabetes on your circulation. You are much more likely to have a heart attack if you have diabetes and you smoke. Also don't use e-cigarettes or vaping products.

  • Take good care of your feet. If you have lost feeling in your feet, you may not notice an injury or infection. Check your feet and between your toes at least once a day. Use a mirror to check the bottoms of your feet.

  • Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace. Or carry a card in your wallet that says you have diabetes. This will help healthcare providers give you the right care if you get very ill and can't tell them that you have diabetes.

Sick-day plan

If you get a cold, the flu, or a bacterial or viral infection, take these steps:

  • Look at your diabetes sick plan and call your healthcare provider as you were told to. You may need to call your provider right away if:

    • Your blood sugar is above 240 mg/dL while taking your diabetes medicine

    • Your urine ketone levels are above normal or high

    • You have been vomiting more than 6 hours

    • You have trouble breathing or your breath has a fruity smell

    • You have a high fever

    • You have a fever for several days and you are not getting better

    • You get light-headed and are sleepier than usual

  • Keep taking your diabetes pills (oral medicine) even if you have been vomiting and are feeling sick. Call your provider right away. This is because you may need insulin to lower your blood sugar until you recover from your illness.

  • Keep taking your insulin even if you have been vomiting and are feeling sick. Call your provider right away to ask if you need to change your insulin dose. This will depend on your blood sugar results.

  • Check your blood sugar every 2 to 4 hours, or at least 4 times a day.

  • Check your ketones often. Watch them more often if you are vomiting and having diarrhea.

  • Don't skip meals. Try to eat small meals on a regular schedule. Do this even if you don't feel like eating.

  • Drink water or other liquids that don't have caffeine or calories. This will keep you from getting dehydrated. If you are nauseated or vomiting, takes small sips every 5 minutes. To prevent dehydration try to drink a cup (8 ounces) of fluids every hour while you are awake.

General care

Always bring a source of fast-acting sugar with you in case you have symptoms of low blood sugar (below 70 mg/dL). At the first sign of low blood sugar, eat or drink 15 to 20 grams of fast-acting sugar to raise your blood sugar. Examples are:

  • 3 to 4 glucose tablets. You can buy these at most drugstores.

  • 4 ounces (1/2 cup) of regular (not diet) soft drinks

  • 4 ounces (1/2 cup) of any fruit juice

  • 5 to 6 pieces of hard candy

  • 1 tablespoon of honey

Check your blood sugar 15 minutes after treating yourself. If it's still below 70 mg/dL, take 15 to 20 more grams of fast-acting sugar. Test again in 15 minutes. If it returns to normal (70 mg/dL or above), eat a snack or meal to keep your blood sugar in a safe range. If it stays low, call your doctor or go to an emergency room.

If you have had severe low blood sugar episodes, see that someone in your family is trained to give you a shot of glucagon. This will raise your blood sugar if you are unconscious and can't eat any of the above tablets or foods.

Follow-up care

Follow-up with your healthcare provider, or as advised. For more information about diabetes, visit the American Diabetes Association website at www.diabetes.org. Or you can call 800-342-2383.

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have any of these symptoms of high blood sugar that don't go away with the above treatment suggestions:

  • Urinating often

  • Drowsiness

  • Thirst

  • Headache

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Belly (abdominal) pain

  • Eyesight changes

  • Fast breathing

Also call your provider right away if you have any of these signs of low blood sugar and they don't go away with the above treatment suggestions:

  • Fatigue

  • Headache

  • Shakes

  • Excess sweating

  • Hunger

  • Feeling anxious or restless

  • Eyesight changes

  • Drowsiness

  • Weakness

Call 911

Call 911 if any of these occur:

  • Chest pain or shortness of breath

  • Dizziness or fainting

  • Weakness of an arm or leg or one side of the face

  • Trouble speaking or seeing 

  • Confusion or loss of consciousness

© 2000-2022 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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