Diabetes Basics
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Dear Diabetes: Hyperglycemia

Understanding high blood sugar

Dear Diabetes: What are the basics of high blood sugar?

When blood sugar rises above target levels, it is called hyperglycemia. In people living with diabetes, an episode of hyperglycemia may arise as a result of a number of factors, including not taking diabetes medication(s) as prescribed by your doctor, not eating properly, exercising too little, stress, illness or other events. It’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of hyperglycemia because it may become very serious if left untreated.

Once eaten, food is broken down into its components, including glucose, a type of sugar that fuels the body. The hormone insulin signals cells in the body to let in glucose present in the blood stream. Diabetes occurs when the body either cannot produce the hormone insulin, as is the case for type 1, produces too little insulin, or fails to respond to insulin, as in type 2.  As a result, glucose may build up in the blood as food is broken down, leading to high blood sugar levels.

Target blood sugar levels, or the numbers a person with diabetes should aim for, may vary from person to person. Talk to your healthcare team about setting your target blood sugar numbers. According to the American Diabetes Association’s 2015 Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes, typical ranges for non-pregnant adults living with diabetes include 80 to 130 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) upon awakening and before meals, and 180 mg/dL or lower one to two hours after eating.

Early signs of hyperglycemia may include increased thirst and urination, blurred vision, fatigue or headache. However, symptoms may not occur until blood sugar levels climb much higher than the target range, and may develop slowly as time progresses. For these reasons, checking blood sugar is the only way to be certain hyperglycemia is occurring.

(Read more about identifying the symptoms of type 1 and type 2 diabetes.)

While exercise may lower blood sugar levels, the American Diabetes Association (The Association) advises avoiding exercise if blood sugar levels are above 240 mg/dL.

An episode of hyperglycemia may also be treated with an extra dose of insulin to bring down blood sugar.

Over very long periods of time, too much sugar in the blood may affect important parts of the body.

It’s important to recognize hyperglycemia; if left untreated, it may lead to a buildup of toxic acids (ketones) in your blood and urine – a very dangerous condition called ketoacidosis. Signs and symptoms of ketoacidosis include: fruity-smelling breath, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, shortness of breath, weakness, confusion, dry mouth or comaContact your healthcare team immediately if you suspect ketoacidosis, as its symptoms may develop very rapidly.

As part of a strategy to manage blood sugar levels and avoid hyperglycemia, The Association recommends setting blood sugar targets with the help of a doctor and checking blood sugar levels frequently. In addition, a meal plan, an exercise routine and medication adjustments may help manage blood sugar levels.

© 2015 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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