More than 20 million people in the United States have diabetes, and an estimated six million people are unaware they have it. The best way to prevent diabetic emergencies is to effectively manage the disease through making health food choices, exercise and frequently checking blood glucose levels.

Diabetics may experience life-threatening emergencies from too much or too little insulin in their bodies. Too much insulin can cause a low sugar level (hypoglycemia), which can lead to insulin shock. Not enough insulin can cause a high level of sugar (hyperglycemia), which can cause a diabetic coma.

Symptoms of insulin shock include:

  • Weakness, drowsiness
  • Rapid pulse
  • Fast breathing
  • Pale, sweaty skin
  • Headache, trembling
  • Odorless breath
  • Numbness in hands or feet
  • Hunger

Symptoms of diabetic coma include:

  • Weak and rapid pulse
  • Nausea
  • Deep, sighing breaths
  • Unsteady gait
  • Confusion
  • Flushed, warm, dry skin
  • Odor of nail polish or sweet apple
  • Drowsiness, gradual loss of consciousness

First aid for both conditions is the same:

  • If the person is unconscious or unresponsive, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
  • If an unconscious person exhibits life-threatening conditions, place the person horizontally on a flat surface, check breathing, pulse and circulation, and administer CPR while waiting for professional medical assistance.

Anyone who thinks they're having a medical emergency should not hesitate to seek care. Federal law ensures that anyone who comes to the emergency department is treated and stabilized, and that their insurance provides coverage based on symptoms, not a final diagnosis. 

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