Insulin shock -- also called diabetic shock or severe hypoglycemia -- happens when your blood sugar drops to dangerously low levels. It’s your body’s response when your amount of insulin and your amount of nutrients are far apart.

Insulin shock is a medical emergency. When you don’t treat it, it can have serious consequences. In rare cases, it can be fatal.

You might get it from:

  • Taking too much insulin
  • Skipping a meal
  • Drinking alcohol
  • A medical problem like kidney disease

“If you have too much insulin and/or not enough nutrients, you first get hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar,” says Ellen Leschek, MD, a program director at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Health Information Center.

When you don’t treat your hypoglycemia, it can go on to become insulin shock, a diabetic emergency.

Warning Signs and Symptoms

Typically, when your hypoglycemia isn’t serious, you’re awake and able to deal with it yourself. You may have:

  • Anxiety
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Hunger
  • Crankiness
  • Nausea
  • Shakiness
  • Sweating

Hypoglycemia symptoms are early warning signs of insulin shock. But it’s possible to go straight to insulin shock with no warning at all.

“Some people with diabetes experience hypoglycemia unawareness, which means they’re not aware when their blood sugar is dropping because they don’t experience the usual signs and symptoms of low blood sugar,” Leschek says. This puts you at a higher risk for insulin shock.

A classic sign that you have insulin shock is not being able to function on your own. “When you don’t treat your hypoglycemia, it can become severe, requiring another person’s help,” says Leschek.

You can have symptoms like:

  • Not being able to eat or drink
  • Blurry vision
  • Seizures
  • Confusion
  • Trouble speaking
  • Jerky movements
  • Passing out
  • Sleepiness
  • Twitching
  • Weakness

Insulin shock can also lead to a diabetic coma -- a state where you’re still alive, but unresponsive -- or even death.

Your chances of a diabetic coma go up when you have repeated bouts of severe hypoglycemia. Diabetic coma can lead to permanent changes in your brain.

“When you’re in a diabetic coma caused by insulin shock, the brain is not getting enough sugar, which is what causes loss of consciousness,” Leschek says. “If the hypoglycemia isn’t corrected, brain cells can die, resulting in brain damage.”

Death from insulin shock is rare, but it can happen. The danger of insulin shock comes mostly from accidents that happen when your symptoms make you pass out or fall.

Treatment and Prevention

If you have symptoms of insulin shock, your body needs glucose. Because having insulin shock typically means you’re unable to take care of yourself, you’ll need help getting glucose into your body. Especially if you’re unconscious, this can come in the form of a shot of glucagon, a hormone your body makes that raises your blood sugar fast.

Insulin shock isn’t something you can ignore.

Noticing and treating low blood sugar early can help keep it from becoming insulin shock. It’s especially important to let your doctor know if you have repeated bouts of hypoglycemia, since this can be a sign that your insulin dose needs a change.

“The best preventions are to eat properly, take insulin as prescribed, and monitor blood glucose frequently using a home blood glucose meter and a continuous glucose monitor,” Leschek says.

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