Diabetic Emergencies

A diabetic emergency occurs when there is a severe imbalance between the amount of insulin and sugar in the body.

Two conditions may result in a diabetic emergency:

  1. Not enough insulin, causing a high level of sugar or hyperglycemia. This could lead to diabetic coma.
    This may be caused by:
    • not taking enough insulin
    • eating too much food
    • doing less exercise than usual
  2. Too much insulin, causing a low level of sugar or hypoglycemia. This may lead to insulin shock.
    This may be caused by:
    • taking too much insulin
    • not eating enough food or vomiting
    • doing more exercise than usual

How to recognize a diabetic emergency

A conscious casualty with diabetes might be able to tell you what is wrong. However, keep in mind that the person may be confused.

An unconscious casualty may be wearing a medical alert bracelet or necklace that will tell you that he/she has diabetes.

If the casualty cannot tell you what he/she needs, look for the following signs & symptoms:

Sign/Symptom Insulin Shock (needs sugar) Diabetic Coma (needs insulin)
Pulse Strong and Rapid Weak and Rapid
Breathing Shallow Deep and Sighing
Skin Pale and Sweating Flushed, Dry and Warm
Breath Odor Odourless Like Musty Apple or Nail Polish
LOC Faintness to Unconsciousness Developing Quickly Gradual Onset of Unconsciousness
Other signs & Symptoms Headache, Trembling, Hunger Unsteady Walk, Nausea

First Aid for a diabetic emergency

The first aid for insulin shock and diabetic coma is the same:

  1. Begin scene survey
    • If the casualty is unresponsive, get medical help immediately.
    • Do a primary survey and give first aid for life-threatening conditions.
    • Place the unconscious person into the recovery position and monitor the ABC's until medical help can take over:
      Airway to ensure a clear airway
      Breathing- to ensure effective breathing
      Circulation- to ensure effective circulation)
    • Look for a medical alert device that will give you more information about the casualty's condition.
  2. If the casualty is conscious and knows what is wrong:
    • Assist him/her to take what is needed - sugar or her prescribed medication
  3. If the casualty is confused about what is required:
    • Give him/her something to eat or drink and get medical help.