Hypoglycemia is when glucose levels drop below normal, which typically means under 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl).1 Severe Hypoglycemia is when a person’s blood sugar or glucose levels drop much lower—around the 35-40 mg/dl range.
These blood glucose ranges are common in hypoglycemia or severe hypoglycemia, but there are exceptions. People can have mild to severe symptoms with different blood glucose levels. If someone’s sugar levels fall quickly, they could still have symptoms even if their glucose levels are normal.2
With severe hypoglycemia, the symptoms make it so the person is unable to help themselves. A friend, family member, stranger, or emergency responder would have to step in and help by encouraging them to eat or drink something sugary, or if the person is unconscious, inject them with glucagon to quickly raise their glucose levels.3 If the person is unconscious, it could be very serious as there is a possibility of brain damage if the brain is deprived of glucose for too long.4
In order to operate, the brain depends on glucose and uses it as the main source of energy.5 When the brain is deprived of this fuel, the body responds with symptoms that relate more to brain function.
What are the Symptoms of Severe Hypoglycemia?
The person may appear like their drunk6 and have symptoms such as; confusion, disorientation, slurred speech, and the inability to think or make decisions. More serious symptoms are; loss of consciousness, seizures,7 low body temperature—hypothermia, coma, and in rare cases, death if no emergency medical care is given. An episode that goes on for an extended period may cause permanent brain damage or heart issue’s, particularly if the person has coronary artery disease.2
When blood sugar levels are low enough to produce these types of symptoms, the hypoglycemic person is in real danger. They could fall down the stairs and hit their head, or if the person is driving, they may create a vehicle accident, endangering themselves and other motorists or pedestrians, which could result in loss of life.6
Severe Hypoglycemia Causes
Those with diabetes often experience hypoglycemia, but people who are non-diabetic can also have low blood sugar.
Continual health issues that require regular treatment may cause blood glucose to fall to a low level. Also;
- Medications used to treat diabetes, depression and other illnesses
- Alcohol consumption
- Excessive exercise without eating proper foods to maintain blood sugar levels
- Diseases that affect the pancreas, liver, kidney’s, adrenal glands, and other organs
- Genetic metabolism issues
- Issues due to gastric bypass surgery2
- Hypoglycemia Unawareness (Click for more info)
Severe Hypoglycemia Treatment
If the person experiencing severe hypoglycemia is conscious and able to treat themselves, then they should eat a sugary candy, glucose tablet, drink a sugary juice or beverage.
If the person is unconscious and unable to treat themselves, then an injection of glucagon will bring their sugar levels up in a safe and quick way. Glucagon injections may cause the person to vomit, so be sure to turn them onto their side or position them so they will not choke if this happens. A person that is having seizures or is unconscious should not be given any food or drink to prevent them from choking.
Call emergency responders in the case of an unconscious person. If there isn’t a glucagon injection kit available, have something sweet on hand in case the person wakes up while you wait for the ambulance.8
Management of Severe Hypoglycemia
To manage and prevent this condition, the best thing to do is;
- Make sure to eat snacks and meals regularly
- Take any necessary medications
- Test often with an at home glucose meter to monitor your sugar levels
- Educate family and friends, letting them know you have this condition and in the case of an emergency, tell them you will need a sugary food or drink. If you have glucagon, show them how to use it.
- Keep snacks or sugary candies with you wherever you go.
- Eat something before and after exercise
- Pay attention to blood sugar levels when drinking alcohol
If you are diabetic or have hypoglycemia and have experienced dangerously low blood sugar levels, make sure to talk with your doctor about what to do in case of an emergency. Educate family and friends so they are aware and can recognize early symptoms, that way they know what to do and can help you if needed.
Please feel free to leave a comment below!
Do you have any questions or thoughts? Have you experienced severe hypoglycemia or know someone who has? What was that like for you and how did it turn out?
Published March 23, 2017
1) Low Blood Glucose (Hypoglycemia). National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-problems/low-blood-glucose-hypoglycemia. Published August 2016. Accessed February 16, 2017.
2) Hypoglycemia (Low Blood Sugar) in People Without Diabetes. Michigan Medicine University of Michigan: Department of Internal Medicine Metabolism, Endocrinology & Diabetes (MEND). http://www.med.umich.edu/intmed/endocrinology/patients/Hypoglycemia.htm. Accessed March 29, 2017.
3) Nancy Klobassa Davidson, RN; Peggy Moreland, RN, CDE. Living with diabetes blog: Avoiding hypoglycemia unawareness. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diabetes/expert-blog/hypoglycemia-unawareness/bgp-20056569. Published August 19, 2011. Accessed March 10, 2017.
4) Is Low Blood Glucose (Hypoglycemia) Dangerous?. Joslin Diabetes Center. http://www.joslin.org/info/is_low_blood_glucose_hypoglycemia_dangerous.html. Accessed March 22, 2017.
5) FACT SHEET: Nondiabetic Hypoglycemia. Hormone Health Network. http://www.hormone.org/questions-and-answers/2013/nondiabetic-hypoglycemia. October 2013. Accessed February 24, 2017.
6) Is Low Blood Glucose (Hypoglycemia) Dangerous?. Joslin Diabetes Center. http://www.joslin.org/info/is_low_blood_glucose_hypoglycemia_dangerous.html. Accessed March 22, 2017.
7) Nancy Klobassa Davidson, RN; Peggy Moreland, RN, CDE. Living with diabetes blog: Understanding hypoglycemia unawareness. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diabetes/expert-blog/hypoglycemia-unawareness/bgp-20056549. Published August 10, 2011. Accessed March 10, 2017.
8) Severe Hypoglycemia. Diabetes.co.uk: the global diabeties community. http://www.diabetes.co.uk/severe-hypoglycemia.html. Accessed April 4, 2017.