When you have to start using insulin to control your diabetes, the thought can seem overwhelming. How can you learn when you need injections? How will the shots affect your job, social life, and hobbies like sports or traveling?

The truth is that most insulin users can do just about anything they want. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not that hard to fit this medication into everyday life.

"It can be a big change, but you'll soon realize that lots of people do this and it's not as big an inconvenience as you thought," says Erin Kelly, RN, a diabetes educator at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.

Before you begin, sit down with a certified diabetes educator (your doctor can recommend one) to learn how to give yourself the shots and to figure out a routine that works for you. In the meantime, here’s a glimpse into how insulin injections might be part of your day-to-day life.

A Day With Insulin

If your doctor has prescribed insulin just once or twice a day -- which may be the case if you have type 2 diabetes -- then your diabetes care probably won't interfere with your daily life very much. In fact, you can probably leave your supplies at home while you're out and about for the day.

Sometimes, the routine is more involved. If you have type 1 diabetes (or you have type 2 but it's not well-controlled), you may need three or four shots a day. Some of that insulin may be the "short-acting" type, which means you have to calculate how big your dose should be before you take it, usually before a meal. That means you’ll be testing your blood sugar with a glucose meter, doing some math, and then taking a shot.

It can seem like a lot to learn at first, says Toby Smithson, a certified diabetes educator in Hilton Head, SC.

"When you're newly diagnosed, you can feel overwhelmed physically and emotionally," she says.

Smithson has plenty of firsthand experience. She’s had type 1 diabetes for almost 47 years.

Her routine is pretty typical for someone with that type. She checks her blood sugar about 8-10 times a day so she can make sure it isn't going too high or too low, and so she can figure out how much insulin she needs. She wears a pump, but she has to tell it how much insulin to give out, just as someone who uses a syringe or insulin pen has to measure out a dose. She generally takes insulin at least three times a day: before breakfast, before lunch, before dinner, and in between meals if her blood sugar gets too high.

"I don't know anyone who likes injections," Smithson says. But over time, you get more comfortable, and the blood sugar checks and shots won’t seem like such a big deal.

Insulin to Go

If you have type 1 -- or if you have type 2 but your doctor has prescribed insulin three or four times a day -- you’ll need to carry your medication and supplies with you whenever you’re away. That includes when you’re heading to work, meeting a friend for lunch, or taking an exercise class at the gym, for examples.

Most insulin users need to keep a few items on hand:

  • Insulin vials and syringes, or insulin pens and pen needles
  • Blood glucose meter, lancing device, lancets, and test strips
  • Calculator, or a smartphone with a calculator app (to figure out how much insulin you need)
  • Hard candy, glucose tablets, or glucose gel (in case your blood sugar drops too low)

Glucose meters come with a carrying case, Kelly says, but they might not be big enough to hold much else. Some women stash the other supplies in a purse or cosmetics case. Men might use a briefcase, gym bag, or even cargo pants with large pockets.

Common Concerns

How can I manage shots while I'm at work?

If you’re new to insulin, you may worry about checking your blood sugar and giving yourself shots while you’re on the job.

“Some people feel like they can’t take a break at work to do these things, but that’s a right under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Kelly says. In other words, tell your boss about your condition. The law requires him to give you time to take care of your health issue. 

Kelly also suggests that people with type 1 keep a glucagon emergency kit at work. If your blood sugar ever drops very low, the medicine can raise it quickly. Also, train a co-worker to use the kit in case you ever pass out and can’t give yourself a shot.

Can I still go out to restaurants?

Yes! You don’t need to retreat to the bathroom to test your sugar or take a shot, Kelly says. “Once you become comfortable with it, you’ll realize it’s just a part of your life,” she says.

If you’re worried about drawing too much attention, keep your glucose meter and pens or syringes on your lap or in a bag, instead of on the table.

Will I have to stop exercising or playing sports?

Definitely not. Being active can help you manage your diabetes. But know that it can make blood sugar drop too low.

Talk to your doctor about how to handle physical activity. You might need to check your levels before or after exercise and then adjust your insulin dose accordingly.

How can I make it through airline security?

Let the screener know you have diabetes.

Keep the boxes from your insulin vials, pens, and glucagon kit and use those when you're packing. You'll need to show the printed label from a pharmacy that identifies the medication to bring your supplies (including syringes) with you. Prescriptions and letters from a doctor aren't good enough, because they can be forged.

Insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors usually don't set off alarms, and you shouldn't have to remove them. You won't have to turn off the glucose monitor during your flight, either.

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