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Insulin Delivery Systems: An Overview

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WebMD Feature

You need insulin to control your diabetes. That seems pretty straightforward. Yet there are a few decisions you and your doctor still need to make -- including how that insulin is delivered.

The three main insulin delivery options are a pen, syringe, or pump. There are also a few newer insulin delivery systems, including the jet injector.

Here are the pros and cons of each insulin delivery method to help you get started.

Choosing an Insulin Delivery System

You might not have much of a say in which insulin delivery system you get, unless you're willing to spend extra money. "Very often the choice is determined by what their insurance will pay for," says Vivian Fonseca, MD, FRCP, professor of Medicine and chief of the Section of Endocrinology at Tulane University School of Medicine.

Your insurance company may have only one insulin delivery system in its formulary. If you want to choose a different option, you'll have to pay for it out of pocket.

Aside from your insurance coverage, your choice should be based on which insulin delivery system you feel most comfortable with, says Fonseca, who is also president of Medicine & Science for the American Diabetes Association. "There are people who handle syringes better than others," he says. "And while many do well with pumps, some patients either don't like them or don't manage to use them effectively."  

Pen, Pump, or Syringe?

Here's a rundown of the three different insulin delivery systems, how they work, and their pros and cons.

Insulin Syringe

You use an insulin syringe to inject insulin into your bloodstream with a very fine needle.

Pros:

  • Flexibility. You can choose from many different brands and types of syringes, and you can use them with just about any kind of insulin.
  • Cost savings. Syringes are inexpensive ($10 - $15 for a box of 100 syringes). That's why they're more likely than other delivery systems to be covered by your insurance.   
  • People with very regular schedules and consistent meal patterns can do well using this method.

Cons:

  • Time. "The real problem with the syringe is the amount of steps you have to take," according to Fonseca. Before injecting you need to fill the syringe with air, attach the needle, and draw the correct dose of insulin into the syringe.  
  • Dosing mistakes. "The syringe is totally manual, and it possibly leads to more errors," Fonseca says. It's up to you to make sure you're injecting the right dose.

Insulin Pen

An insulin pen works much like a syringe, but it looks like the type of pen you use to write. Insulin pens come in disposable and reusable versions.

  • Disposable pens come pre-filled with insulin.
  • Reusable pens use a cartridge filled with insulin.

Pros:

  • Ease and convenience. "I think pens are much easier to use than syringes," Fonseca says. To use an insulin pen, you just dial up the insulin dose on the pen. Then you press a plunger at one end to inject the insulin through a needle at the other end.  
  • Memory storage. Insulin pens have a handy memory feature that will remind you how much insulin you took, and when you took it.
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People who experience hypoglycemia several times in a week should call their health care provider. It's important to monitor your levels each day so you can make sure your numbers are within the range. If you are pregnant always consult with your health care provider.

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Your level is high if this reading was taken before eating. Aim for 70-130 before meals and less than 180 two hours after meals.

Even if your number is high, it's not too late for you to take control of your health and lower your blood sugar.

One of the first steps is to monitor your levels each day. If you are pregnant always consult with your physician.

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