For anyone living with diabetes or caring for a person with the disease, understanding the different complications that can arise from poor disease management is essential for staying safe. And while many symptoms of the disease can be monitored and managed with the proper treatment plan, there are a few more severe complications that can become life-threatening if they are not caught early enough — one of which is the diabetic coma.
As a lesser-known complication, many people are surprised to learn that patients with diabetes are at an increased risk of falling into a coma. Caused by extremely high or extremely low blood glucose levels, education about the identifying symptoms as well as interventions that can be done to prevent the situation from becoming life-threatening are two essential safety measures that all people dealing with diabetes should be aware of.
With this in mind, we wanted to create this resource as a quick and easy guide about everything you need to know about diabetic comas. This blog is a must-read for anyone living with the disease, as well as family and friends, to ensure that, should an emergency arise, you’ll be prepared to help out. Read on to learn more about the causes, symptoms, and treatment options available for a diabetic coma.
What is a diabetic coma?
To better understand specific areas of this disease, we first must cover the basics of what a diabetic coma is. Let’s begin by getting a better picture of what a coma is and what can cause a person to enter a comatose state.
Defined as a deep state of unconsciousness, a coma can be caused by various factors. Depending on the surrounding medical circumstances, a person can be in a comatose state for any length of time, from as little as a few minutes to multiple years. While most people associate comas with serious injuries or profound medical emergencies, another common reason why someone may become comatose includes poorly controlled diabetes.
As a disease that primarily impacts the function and efficacy of the hormone insulin, diabetes can lead to various health problems. If a person with diabetes is unable to receive the treatment and medications they need to keep their blood glucose levels stable, they can experience profound peaks and dips in their blood sugar levels throughout the day, which can make them feel very ill. In severe cases, extremely high or low blood glucose levels can directly impact a person’s neurological system — resulting in an increased risk of losing consciousness and entering a comatose state.
It is important to note that a person is still alive while they are in a diabetic coma, even if they are not responsive. But, this being said, if they do not receive immediate medical attention, a diabetic coma can be a fatal condition.
What causes a diabetic coma?
Now that we have a better understanding of its seriousness, let’s look more closely at the primary causes of a diabetic coma. As we mentioned above, a diabetic coma can be caused by both sides of the spectrum of blood sugar levels — extreme highs and extreme lows. We will start by looking at the result of high blood sugar levels.
High blood glucose levels (also called hyperglycemia) can occur after a meal — due to the sudden increase in available nutrients and carbohydrates in the body. If a person with diabetes is unable to regulate their blood sugar levels, they may experience some of the following symptoms:
- Increased thirst
- The need to urinate more than normal
- Profound fatigue
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea and vomiting
- A fruity odor to the breath (also known as acetone breath)
- Rapid heart rate
- Stomach pain and discomfort
- Loss of consciousness and development of diabetic coma
On the other hand, low blood sugar levels (a condition known as hypoglycemia) also come with various symptoms. Hypoglycemia is most commonly caused by overuse of diabetic medications, overexercising, or not eating enough. Depending on how low a person’s blood glucose levels become, they can experience a variety of symptoms, including:
- Increased shakiness or nervousness
- Profound hunger
- Fatigue and weakness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Increased sweating
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- Confusion, disorientation, and difficulty speaking
- Loss of consciousness and an elevated risk of entering a diabetic coma
Symptoms of a diabetic coma
Now that we know some of the early warning signals of a diabetic coma, we should explore some of the true signs that someone may be in danger of becoming comatose. If you are with someone who has diabetes and they start to display these symptoms, it is imperative that you call emergency medical services in order to get them the best possible chance of receiving the care they need as soon as possible.
Diabetic coma symptoms to watch out for include:
Disorientation and confusion
As one of the earlier signs of trouble, extremely high or low blood sugar levels can lead to feelings of confusion. If you are with a person with diabetes and they begin to slur their words, mumble gibberish, or talk nonsense, they may be at risk of entering a diabetic coma.
Loss of consciousness or passing out
Depending on the person’s current blood sugar levels, they may begin to nod off or pass out. During this time, they may regain consciousness for a short period of time, but they will lose consciousness again shortly if they do not receive adequate medical care.
Difficulty to rouse
Once a person with diabetes has entered a diabetic coma, they will become incredibly difficult to rouse or awaken. If you are unable to rouse them by shaking their shoulders or yelling their name, it is essential that you call emergency services immediately so they can be adequately cared for.
Understanding diabetic coma treatment
Having covered all of this critical information about the most common symptoms and causes of diabetic comas, it would be natural if you are now wondering, “how do you treat a diabetic coma?”
Like many other medical conditions, the best treatment option for a diabetic coma is preventing it from occurring in the first place. Thankfully, through diligent monitoring and adherence to your treatment plan, you can avoid your risk of experiencing a diabetic coma. Examples of things you can integrate into your daily routine that will reduce your risk of diabetic coma include:
Following your meal plan
Designed to prevent profound peaks and dips in your blood glucose levels, sticking to a diabetic diet is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of experiencing a diabetes-induced coma.
Monitoring your blood sugar levels
As a daily task that can be done in the morning or evening, tracking your blood glucose levels can help ensure you aren’t too far off from normal ranges after you eat.
Taking your diabetes medications as directed
If you require oral or injectable diabetes medication, be sure to take them as instructed by your primary care provider. Taking too much or too little of your medication can lead to the development of a diabetic coma.
Having access to emergency glucose tabs
In the event of a sudden low blood glucose reading, having fast-acting glucose tabs is a great way to boost your blood sugar levels quickly. Something as simple as Lifesaver candies can make a world of difference in a hypoglycemic emergency.
Investing in a continuous glucose monitor
For those who have been struggling with managing their blood sugar levels, investing in a continuous glucose monitor is a great way to identify potential issues early on. Able to alarm should your blood glucose drop below or go above normal levels, this is a must for anyone who has previously experienced a diabetic coma.
The bottom line
At the end of the day, a diabetic coma is a profound complication that only occurs in severe cases of poor disease management. If you are following your treatment plan and monitoring your symptoms, there is a very low chance that this will ever become a concern for you. However, being educated about the potential risks and knowing how to identify early warning signs is important for anyone living with diabetes and for the people around them.
For more information about diabetes care and how to reduce your risk of developing chronic health complications, please visit our blog for additional helpful tips for managing the disease.
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