According to the American Diabetes Association, approximately 34.2 million Americans, or 10.5 percent of the population has diabetes; of that number, 26.8 million are diagnosed and 7.3 million are undiagnosed. For these individuals, hyperglycemia is a major concern that must be carefully monitored and avoided. Hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, is a term that describes a condition in which the concentration of glucose in the bloodstream gets too high. When people have high blood sugar levels regularly, the condition can cause damage to the organs, blood vessels, and nerves, as well as other health effects. If you’re wondering what to do when blood sugar is high, there are several strategies that can help bring your blood sugar down quickly in an emergency and prevent spikes in blood sugar over time.
Types of High Blood Sugar
There are two different main types of high blood sugar or hypoglycemia. Fasting hyperglycemia is measured when the patient has not eaten for at least eight hours. Patients with a blood glucose level higher than 130 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) are considered to have fasting hyperglycemia. Postprandial hyperglycemia, or reactive hyperglycemia, occurs after eating. In patients with postprandial hyperglycemia, the liver does not stop producing sugar as it normally would after a meal, and it stores the extra sugar. A blood glucose level over 180 mg/dL, taken one to two hours after eating, is considered reactive hyperglycemia.
Problems Associated With High Blood Sugar
Frequent high blood pressure puts patients at risk of diabetes complications that can be potentially serious. Even when blood sugar does not reach acutely dangerous levels, complications can develop over time if blood sugar is consistently above a patient’s target range. Serious conditions and complications associated with high blood glucose include:
- Damage to the blood vessels of the eyes (retinopathy)
- Nerve damage in the feet and hands (neuropathy)
- Increased risk of kidney disease
- Increased risk of heart problems like heart disease
Depending on the type of diabetes a patient has, there are two different extreme forms of hyperglycemia as well. Ketoacidosis is severe hyperglycemia that impacts people with type 1 diabetes. Ketoacidosis occurs when the body runs out of glucose and begins to use ketones, a type of toxic acid, for energy. Ketoacidosis can lead to diabetic coma or even death, and it is extremely serious. Hyperosmolar Hyperglycemic Nonketotic Syndrome (HHNS) is a severe form of hyperglycemia that impacts people with Type 2 diabetes. It occurs when the blood glucose level goes too high and the body tries to rid itself of the excess glucose through frequent urination. If the body becomes dehydrated enough, it can go into a coma.
What to Do When Blood Sugar Is High
There are several signs of high blood sugar or a blood sugar spike, including:
- Increased thirst and dry mouth
- Frequent urination
- Blurred vision
If you start to notice any of these symptoms of high blood sugar or notice that your levels are too high through a blood sugar reading, there are several things that you can do to help bring down your blood sugar quickly.
- Take insulin: If you have access to insulin, taking rapid-acting insulin is the first step you should take during a blood sugar spike. Your health care provider can advise you how to administer enough insulin based on your treatment plan and health information. About 15 to 30 minutes after giving yourself insulin, check your blood sugar level to make sure it is declining but is not too low.
- Drink water: Drinking water will encourage your body to flush out the excess blood glucose with increased urination. If you have heart or kidney problems, talk to your doctor before drinking excessive amounts of water to try and lower your blood sugar levels.
- Exercise: The body uses glucose for energy, so exercising can help cause the blood sugar levels to drop. However, in order to make a difference in your blood sugar levels, you will need to exercise hard enough to get your heart rate up higher than usual.
- Eat a high protein snack: Although eating can cause a spike in blood sugar levels, eating foods that are high in protein will actually help bring your blood sugar down. The food should be high in protein, such as slices of turkey, and should not be higher in carbs. Eating protein does take longer to lower your blood sugar than other methods, including insulin, so it should not be used in the event of an emergency.
How to Prevent High Blood Sugar
The best way to treat high blood sugar is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Not only does this help to avoid a potential emergency, but it also reduces the likelihood of experiencing diabetic complications. Patients with diabetes can prevent high blood sugar by taking some of the following measures:
- Regularly monitoring blood sugar levels: Most people do not experience symptoms from hyperglycemia until their levels are over 200 mg/dL, but damage can begin to occur in the body at lower levels. Patients with diabetes should regularly monitor their blood sugar throughout the day to prevent the levels from getting too high.
- Eat complex carbs: Many patients with diabetes think they have to stay away from carbohydrates entirely, but not all carbs are created equal. Simple carbohydrates, like those found in white bread and many processed foods, break down quickly because they’re only made of one type of sugar. This causes blood sugar levels to rise too quickly. Complex carbs like sweet potatoes and whole grains are composed of three or more sugars, which take the body longer to break down. People with diabetes should avoid eating simple carbohydrates when possible and focus on complex carbs.
- Control your weight: Studies show that losing weight is associated with a reduced risk of diabetes, and being overweight is linked to higher rates of insulin resistance. Losing even 10 to 20 pounds can help your body improve its response to insulin and lower your risk of diabetes.
- Exercise regularly: Exercise helps increase insulin sensitivity in people with diabetes and also lowers blood sugar levels by encouraging the body to use glucose for energy. Even 30 minutes a few times as week can help your body keep your blood sugar levels in check.
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Diabetic.org is devoted to producing expert and accurate articles and information for our readers by hiring experts, journalists, medical professionals, and our growing Diabetic.org community. We encourage you to read more about our content, editing, and fact checking methods here. This was fact checked by Erik Rivera and medically reviewed by Dr. Angel Rivera.
Owner, entrepreneur, and consumer health enthusiast.