Recognize These Symptoms of High Blood Sugar

Danielle Dent-Breen's picture
diabetes

In the United States alone, more than 29 million people are living with diabetes, and 86 million are living with prediabetes, a serious health condition that increases a person’s risk of type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when the pancreas is no longer able to make insulin, or when the body cannot make good use of the insulin it produces. Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas that acts like a key to let glucose from the food we eat pass from the blood stream into the cells in the body to produce energy. All carbohydrate foods are broken down into glucose in the blood. Insulin helps glucose get into the cells.

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Not being able to produce insulin or use it effectively leads to raised glucose (blood sugar) levels in the blood. The medical term for high blood sugar is hyperglycemia. When blood sugar levels remain high over an extended period, damage to body tissues and failure of various organs begins. Because diabetes is so prevalent, it is important to understand and recognize the symptoms of high blood sugar, and to seek medical treatment early if you suspect that you may have high blood sugar.

The cost of diabetes:

People with diabetes either don’t make enough insulin (type 1 diabetes) or can’t use insulin properly (type 2 diabetes). Type 2 diabetes accounts for about 90% to 95% of all diagnosed cases of diabetes, and type 1 diabetes accounts for about 5%.

The health and economic costs for diabetes care are enormous. More than 20% of health care spending in the United States is for people with diagnosed diabetes. Diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death in the United States in 2013 (and may be underreported). Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure, lower-limb amputations, and adult-onset blindness.

Symptoms of high blood sugar:

In Type 2 Diabetics, high blood sugar often produces no noticeable symptoms at all, especially in its earliest stages. As blood sugar levels rise, symptoms become more severe and dangerous. If average blood sugar levels remain below the target range--usually under 180 mg/dL following a meal--most people will be relatively symptom free, and will be able to live with few complications or progression of the disease. As those blood sugar levels begin to rise, it is common for a diabetic to begin to experience some of the following symptoms:

Mild high blood sugar:
When blood sugar levels are consistently higher than the target range—usually around 200-350 mg/dL—a person with diabetes may begin to experience some mild symptoms of high blood sugar. These include increased thirst and urination, unintentional weight loss, fatigue, and increased appetite.

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Moderate to severe high blood sugar:
If blood sugar levels continue to rise, and are consistently reaching above 350 mg/dL, most diabetics will begin to demonstrate more severe symptoms. These symptoms of high blood sugar include blurry vision; extreme thirst; lightheadedness; skin that is flushed, hot and dry; restlessness or drowsiness; and difficulty waking up. For people whose bodies produce little to no insulin, as blood sugar levels continue to rise, they may enter a state of medical emergency, with rapid, deep breathing; a rapid weak pulse; a distinct “fruity” odor to their breath; and nausea, stomach pain or vomiting. If not treated, rising levels may eventually lead to disorientation and lethargy, and loss of consciousness.

Who is at risk?

People who are experiencing the above symptoms should visit their doctor. In addition, people who have one or more of the following risk factors should talk to their doctor about getting their blood sugar tested:

  • Being overweight.
  • Being 45 years or older.
  • Having a family history of type 2 diabetes.
  • Being physically active less than 3 times a week.
  • Ever having gestational diabetes or giving birth to a baby who weighed more than 9 pounds.
  • Race and ethnicity are also factors: African Americans, Hispanics and Latinos, American Indians, Pacific Islanders, and some Asian Americans are at higher risk than whites.

Diagnosing High Blood Sugar:

Your doctor will most likely perform what is called a hemoglobin a1C test. This test is used to monitor the average levels of blood sugar over the prior 2-3 months, and gives a much clearer picture of the overall state of health than a single blood glucose reading.

People who are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes make no insulin of their own, and will need to take insulin for life to survive. For people with type 2 diabetes, healthy eating, regular physical activity, and medicines to lower blood sugar can help prevent or delay complications. Both groups need to work closely with their health care team to receive diabetes education, regular checkups, and ongoing support to self-manage their health.

Prediabetes? Heed the warning signs
As we reported at the beginning of this article, more than a third of American adults—around 86 million—have prediabetes, and in fact, 90% of them don’t know it. With prediabetes, blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not high enough yet to be diagnosed as diabetes. People with prediabetes have an increased risk of developing full-blown type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. People with prediabetes should discuss treatment options with their physician, including dietary and lifestyle modifications, as well as possible treatment with medication to increase the body’s sensitivity to insulin.

You can fight back against high blood sugar.

The symptoms of high blood sugar carry a very real message: Blood glucose is too high. The symptoms are warning signs, and should be heeded. High blood sugar does more than trigger symptoms that make you feel bad; over time, high blood sugar causes permanent damage to the body.

If you are experiencing high blood sugar, you have it in your power to make the symptoms go away, and to keep them from coming back, by keeping your blood glucose in control. And you’re not alone in this task. Talk to your doctor. Make time to see a diabetes educator. Ask your family members for their support in helping you to eat right and keep active. Use the tools available to you, such as your blood glucose meter, to see whether your numbers are in target range most of the time. If they are not, talk to your medical team about adjusting your therapy. Healthy living with diabetes is within your reach.

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