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What is a diabetes emergency?

Hypoglycaemia and Hyperglycaemia are words that you will hear quite often around the topic of diabetes but what do they mean? 

In this blog "What is an a diabetes emergency", we look at how low and high blood sugar levels can affect you and how to treat these.   

How to Treat hypoglycaemia or low blood sugar

Experiencing hypoglycaemia (hypo) or low blood sugar levels is nothing to take lightly. Once you recognise a low blood sugar level, usually identified as anything below 3.9 mmol/L, you should take action. The warning signs of hypoglycaemia include fatigue, sweating and feeling dizzy. That means knowing how much active insulin is in your system still (if on fast-acting or mealtime insulin) and eating or drinking fast sugar or glucose. This can be in the form of fruit juice, sweets, glucose tablets or energy gels. Typically it’s recommended to follow the rule of 15: take 15 grams of carbs, wait 15 minutes, check your blood sugar levels again. Repeat this process until your blood sugar comes back up in target range. Recheck again an hour later to ensure you don’t have a rebound high blood sugar or persistent low.  While this is a commonly used rule, it is always best to discuss with your healthcare team the best plan for you to follow. 

Hypoglycaemia is not the only potential diabetes related emergency. Diabetes is a complex disease that affects many different organs and functions in the body. 

When does Hyperglycaemia or high blood sugar becomes dangerous

There are so many factors that can cause your blood sugar to rise that it is not uncommon to experience hyperglycaemia if you are a person living with diabetes. When your blood sugar goes up, there are a few different ways you can help your body bring it back down. Do some exercise, for example. Did you know your leg muscles are some of the biggest muscles in your body? Taking a walk can be quite effective in bringing your blood sugar levels down. 

Hyperglycaemia can be a serious problem if left untreated.  It is important to take action as soon as you detect it. Either with medication, exercise, or even practicing meditation to reduce stress.  If left untreated and blood sugar rises too high or remains high for a period of time,  a condition called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) can occur. This is a serious condition that can lead to a diabetic coma. With diabetes, either your body cannot produce insulin or cannot use it effectively. Without insulin addressing your rising blood sugar, your body breaks down fats to use for energy. When your body breaks down fats, it produces waste products called ketones. Your body cannot tolerate large amounts of ketones and will try to get rid of them through the urine. Unfortunately, when the body cannot release all the ketones, they build up in your blood, which can lead to DKA. 

DKA can be life-threatening and needs immediate treatment. If your blood sugar is high and you experience the following symptoms, contact your healthcare team immediately to discuss how to care for this condition. 

  • Shortness of breath

  • Breath that smells fruity

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Very dry mouth

How do you know if it is an emergency?

When you are diagnosed with diabetes you learn fairly early, through trial and error, how your body reacts to different experiences. You also likely know when things aren’t quite right. But how do you know when it is a “real emergency”? How do you know when it is time to seek help? 

Diabetes related emergencies could be defined as any point when symptoms become overwhelming and self-treatment is no longer effective.   

The following signs can indicate a serious problem. If you experience any of these signs and are not able to treat them on your own, call for an ambulance right away. 

  • difficulty breathing

  • a high fever

  • a severe headache

Make sure your friends, family and others that you spend time with know that if they see any of the following signs, they should call an ambulance immediately. 

  • seizures

  • loss of consciousness

Be prepared for emergencies – plan ahead

Emergency planning can improve the chances that the signs and symptoms experienced don’t result in a less than favorable outcome. 

People living with diabetes can prepare by:

  • letting friends and loved ones know about your diabetes and informing them of how they can help you identify blood sugar level trouble 

  • wearing a medical ID badge so that people will know what to do in an emergency

  • keeping a mobile phone charged and ready to contact the emergency services

  • speaking with your doctor about

    whether you should buy a glucagon kit and how and when to use it. As well as ensuring friends and family know how to use it too.

         - how to handle times of crisis and who to call with questions about diabetes emergencies.


This is general information and does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied upon as such. Please always speak to your healthcare professional about what may constitute a diabetes emergency for you. 

The views expressed in the Accu-Chek blog are not necessarily those of Roche Diabetes Care Limited or our publishers. The content is provided for general information only. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely – you must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content. Although we make reasonable efforts to ensure that the content is up to date, we make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content is accurate, complete or up-to-date.


10 February 2021