How to Spot and Treat a Low Blood Sugar Reaction

You know firsthand what it feels like when your blood sugar drops too low. Everyone experiences hypoglycemia a little differently, but chances are that you feel shaky, hungry, cranky, and sweaty. While you recognize the condition in yourself, it is also important for a few trusted individuals—a dear friend, family members, even a co-worker—to know the symptoms of hypoglycemia and how to help you when it occurs.

"If you are diabetic, it can be helpful if you keep some people you trust in the loop," says Mary Pat Gallagher, MD, of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia Medical Center in New York City.

It's more likely that someone with Type 1 diabetes will develop hypoglycemia, Gallagher says, because those with Type 2 diabetes typically manage their blood sugar levels more by using meal plans.

"Those with Type 1 adjust their insulin intake based on what they would like to eat," Gallagher explains. And despite your best calculations, the amount of food you eat doesn't always match up with the amount of insulin you injected, and hypoglycemia results.

Here are the symptoms of hypoglycemia that you and others should be aware of:

  • Feeling shaky
  • Headache
  • Abdominal pain
  • Extreme hunger
  • Perspiring a lot
  • Being very pale
  • Personality changes
  • Being irritable and aggressive
  • In a child, throwing a tantrum

When you have an episode of hypoglycemia, it's important to treat it quickly with fast acting carbohydrates such as juice, sugar tablets, or pure sugar candy. Chocolate's not a great food to use for this purpose, since it's not absorbed as readily as a pure sugar candy. Always keep in your kitchen a supply of regular soda, fruit juices, pure sugar candies, and glucose tablets. Carry sugar candies or glucose candies in your purse or backpack, too.

How much do you need to raise the blood sugar? Typically, to treat low blood sugar, you start out with the equivalent of about 15 grams of carbohydrate: four ounces of juice, four glucose tablets, or four ounces of regular soda, for instance. 
  "Wait for 15 to 20 minutes before giving another 15 grams since it takes time to work," Gallagher advises. "If you give too much, then you overshoot and you're out of your target blood sugar range."

So long as the person is conscious, an episode of low blood sugar is treatable with the appropriate food or beverage. But if the person is unconscious, that's another story, explains Ericka Arrecis, RD, CDE, of the Naomi Berrie Center. "When a person has lost consciousness or is extremely aggressive due to hypoglycemia, it is not possible to treat with a food source," she says. "You can't give them anything to swallow." In such an instance, an injectable form of fast acting carbs like Glucagon would be used, she explains. "It is a good idea to keep a Glucagon kit in the house for an emergency," Arrecis says.  

Also, be sure to wear some type of identification that identifies you as a diabetic in case you should experience a severe episode of hypoglycemia, Gallagher says. This could be in Medic Alert bracelet on your arm or a card in your wallet identifying you as someone with diabetes. Though it may seem like a nuisance, think of it this way: it's better to be safe than sorry.