Hesperian Health Guides

Diabetic Emergencies

Diabetes is a disease that affects the body’s ability to process sugars in food. Someone with diabetes can suddenly become ill if he has too much, or too little, sugar in his blood. Diabetes is more common in people who are overweight, but anyone can get diabetes. The chapter on Diabetes has more information about prevention and treatment of diabetes.

If you know someone is having a problem due to diabetes but you are not sure if the problem is from low blood sugar or high blood sugar, treat as if he has low blood sugar (give a small amount of sugar), and then take him to get medical help.

Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)

This condition can only happen to a person treating his diabetes with medicines. A person’s blood sugar can drop too low if he is taking insulin or another diabetes medication and if he takes too much medicine, does not eat enough food, does too much physical activity, waits too long between meals, or drinks alcohol.

Someone with low blood sugar may become clumsy, confused, nervous or irritable. He may sweat or tremble. When that happens, he must eat. If he does not, his condition will worsen and will develop these danger signs:

a man having trouble walking as a woman ignores him.
Low blood sugar can look a lot like the person is drunk and can be overlooked as being a real emergency.
Danger signs
  • Trouble walking or feeling weak
  • Trouble seeing clearly
  • Confusion or acting in a strange way (you may mistake him for being drunk)
  • Losing consciousness
  • Seizure

If he is conscious, quickly give him sugar: fruit juice, soda, candy, or a glass of water with several spoons of sugar in it will all work. He should eat a full meal soon after as well. If he is still confused or does not begin to feel better 15 minutes after you have given sugar, get help.

If he is unconscious, place a pinch of sugar or honey under his tongue. Keep giving small amounts. It takes time for the body to absorb sugar. When he wakes up you can give him more.

High blood sugar (hyperglycemia)

A person with diabetes can have too much sugar in his blood if he eats too much food, is less active than usual, has a serious illness or infection, does not take his diabetes medicine, or gets dehydrated. This can happen to a person even if he does not yet know he has diabetes. Get help for these signs:

  • Feeling thirsty and drinking a lot
  • Frequent urination
  • Blurry vision
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain

If not treated, high blood sugar can be very dangerous and can lead to a coma or even death. You can save a person’s life by getting help for these more dangerous signs:

Danger signs
  • Fast heart rate
  • Fruity odor on breath
  • Dry skin
  • Low blood pressure
  • Confusion
  • Fast, deep breathing
  • Loss of consciousness

Take him immediately to a medical center. If he is conscious, give him plenty of water to drink. Give a little at a time.

If you are certain he has high blood sugar and know his insulin dose, give a small amount of insulin on the way to help. But if you are not certain, do not give insulin. Giving someone insulin when they have low blood sugar can kill them.

This page was updated:05 Feb 2020