Diabetic ketoacidosis is a serious complication of diabetes.
Diabetic ketoacidosis develops when you have too little insulin in your body. Without enough insulin, sugar (glucose) can’t enter your cells for energy. Your blood sugar level rises, and your body begins to break down fat for energy. This produces toxic acids known as ketones. Left untreated, diabetic ketoacidosis may cause you to lose consciousness. Eventually, untreated diabetic ketoacidosis can be fatal.
Diabetic ketoacidosis is most common in people who have type 1 diabetes, but people who have type 2 diabetes may develop diabetic ketoacidosis, too. In fact, in a few cases diabetic ketoacidosis is the first sign that a person has diabetes. If you have diabetes or you’re at risk of diabetes, learn the warning signs of diabetic ketoacidosis — and know when to seek emergency care.
Signs and symptoms
Diabetic ketoacidosis symptoms often develop quickly, sometimes within 24 hours. You may notice:
- Excessive thirst
- Frequent urination
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Weakness or fatigue
- Shortness of breath
- Fruity-scented breath
More specific signs of diabetic ketoacidosis — which can be detected through home blood and urine testing kits — include:
- High blood sugar level
- High ketone level in your urine
Remember, untreated diabetic ketoacidosis can be fatal. Seek emergency care if you suspect that you have diabetic ketoacidosis, even if you haven’t been diagnosed with diabetes.
Sugar is a main source of energy for the cells that make up your muscles and other tissues. Normally, sugar enters your cells with the help of insulin. If you don’t have enough insulin in your body, your body won’t be able to use sugar for energy. This prompts the release of hormones that break down fat as an alternate fuel. In turn, this process produces toxic acids known as ketones. Excess ketones accumulate in the blood and eventually “spill over” into the urine.
Diabetic ketoacidosis is usually triggered by:
- An illness. An infection or other illness can cause your body to produce certain hormones, such as adrenaline. Unfortunately, these hormones work against insulin — sometimes triggering an episode of diabetic ketoacidosis. Pneumonia and urinary tract infections are common culprits.
- A problem with insulin therapy. Missed insulin treatments or inadequate insulin therapy can leave you with too little insulin in your system, triggering an episode of diabetic ketoacidosis.
Other possible triggers of diabetic ketoacidosis may include:
The risk of diabetic ketoacidosis is highest if you have type 1 diabetes and are younger than age 19. However, diabetic ketoacidosis can happen to anyone — whether you have type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes or gestational diabetes. In a few cases, diabetic ketoacidosis is the first sign that a person has diabetes.
When to seek medical advice
Signs and symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis may mimic those of the flu, so it can be tricky to know whether you have a viral infection or a more serious health problem. If you feel ill, stressed, or you’ve had a recent illness or injury, check your blood sugar level often. You might also try an over-the-counter urine ketones testing kit.
Contact your doctor if:
- You’re vomiting and unable to tolerate any food or liquid
- Your blood sugar level is higher than your target range and doesn’t respond to home treatment
- Your urine ketone level is moderate or high
Seek emergency care if:
- Your blood sugar level is consistently higher than 300 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or 16.5 millimoles per liter (mmol/L)
- You have excess ketones in your urine and can’t reach your doctor for advice
- You have multiple symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis — excessive thirst or urination, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, fruity-scented breath, confusion
Remember, untreated diabetic ketoacidosis can be fatal.
Diabetic ketoacidosis is treated with fluids, electrolytes and insulin. Perhaps surprisingly, the most common complications of diabetic ketoacidosis are related to this lifesaving treatment:
- Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). Insulin allows sugar to enter your cells. This causes your blood sugar level to drop. If your blood sugar level drops too quickly, you may develop low blood sugar.
- Low potassium (hypokalemia). The fluids used to treat diabetic ketoacidosis may cause your potassium level to drop too low. A low potassium level can impair the activities of your heart, muscles and nerves.
- Swelling in the brain (cerebral edema). Adjusting your blood sugar level too quickly can produce swelling in your brain. This complication appears to be more common in children, especially those who have newly diagnosed diabetes.
Left untreated, the risks are much greater. Diabetic ketoacidosis can lead to loss of consciousness. Eventually, diabetic ketoacidosis can be fatal.
If you’re diagnosed with diabetic ketoacidosis, you may be treated in the emergency room or admitted to the hospital. Treatment is usually a three-prong approach:
- Fluid replacement. You’ll receive fluids — either orally or through a vein (intravenously) — until you’re rehydrated. The fluids will replace those you’ve lost through excessive urination, as well as help dilute the excess sugar in your blood.
- Electrolyte replacement. Electrolytes are minerals in your blood that carry an electric charge, such as sodium, potassium and chloride. The absence of insulin can lower the level of several electrolytes in your blood. You’ll receive electrolytes through your veins to help keep your heart, muscles and nerve cells functioning normally.
- Insulin therapy. Insulin reverses the processes that cause diabetic ketoacidosis. Along with fluids and electrolytes, you’ll receive insulin therapy — usually through a vein. When your blood sugar level falls below 250 mg/dL (14 mmol/L) and your blood is no longer acidic, you may be able to stop intravenous insulin therapy and resume your normal insulin therapy.
As your body chemistry returns to normal, your doctor will consider what may have triggered the episode of diabetic ketoacidosis. Depending on the circumstances, you may need additional treatment. For example, if you have undiagnosed diabetes, your doctor will help you create a diabetes treatment plan. If your doctor suspects a bacterial infection, he or she may prescribe antibiotics. If a heart attack seems possible, your doctor may recommend further evaluation of your heart.
There’s much you can do to prevent diabetic ketoacidosis and other diabetes complications.
- Make a commitment to managing your diabetes. Make healthy eating and physical activity part of your daily routine. Take oral diabetes medications or insulin as directed.
- Monitor your blood sugar level. You may need to check and record your blood sugar level at least several times a day — or more if you’re ill or under stress. Careful monitoring is the only way to make sure that your blood sugar level remains within your target range.
- Adjust your insulin dosage as needed. Talk to your doctor or diabetes educator about how to adjust your insulin dosage depending on your blood sugar level, what you eat, how active you are, whether you’re ill and other factors. If your blood sugar level begins to rise, follow your diabetes treatment plan to return your blood sugar level to your target range.
- Check your ketone level. When you’re ill or under stress, test your urine for excess ketones with an over-the-counter urine ketones test kit. If your ketone level is moderate or high, contact your doctor right away or seek emergency care.
- Be prepared to act quickly. If you suspect that you have diabetic ketoacidosis — your blood sugar level is high and you have excess ketones in your urine — seek emergency care.
Diabetes complications are scary. But don’t let fear keep you from taking good care of yourself. Follow your diabetes treatment plan carefully, and ask your diabetes treatment team for help when you need it.