high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) Symptoms, causes and treatments

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The human body naturally has sugar, or glucose, in the blood. The right amount of blood sugar gives the body’s cells and organs energy.

The liver and muscles produce some blood sugar, but most of it comes from food and drinks that contain carbohydrates.

In order to keep blood sugar levels within a normal range, the body needs insulin. Insulin is a hormone that directs the body’s cells to take up glucose and store it.

If there is not enough insulin, or insulin doesn’t work properly, blood sugar builds up. High blood sugar levels can cause health problems.

What does this feel like, why does it happen, and how do you know if your blood sugar levels are too high? Read on to find out more.

Symptoms

High blood sugar can cause headache and fatigue.
High blood sugar can cause headache and fatigue.

Blood sugar is fuel for the body’s organs and functions.

But having high blood sugar doesn’t provide a boost in energy.

In fact, it’s often the opposite, because the body’s cells can’t access the blood sugar for energy.

How does this feel?

When a person has high blood sugar, they may:

  • have a headache and other aches and pains
  • find it hard to concentrate
  • be very thirsty or hungry
  • feel drowsy or tired
  • have blurred vision
  • feel their mouth is dry
  • have bloating
  • need to urinate often
  • notice that wounds take a long time to heal

High blood sugar and low insulin can lead to a rise in ketones, and possibly diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), a serious complication that needs urgent medical attention.

If this occurs, the individual may experience:

  • shortness of breath
  • a fruity taste or smell on the breath
  • a rapid heart beat
  • confusion and disorientation
  • vomiting
  • coma

Testing kits for levels of blood sugar and ketone levels are available for purchase online, for use at home. However, you should see a doctor first, if you do not already have a diagnosis of diabetes.

How does high blood sugar affect the body?

High sugar in the blood can lead to a number of other symptoms and complications. Here are just a few.

Urination and thirst: High blood sugar goes into the kidneys and urine. This attracts more water, causing frequent urination. This can also lead to increased thirst, despite drinking enough liquids.

Weight loss: High blood sugar can cause sudden or unexplained weight loss. This occurs because the body’s cells aren’t getting the glucose they need, so the body burns muscle and fat for energy instead.

Numbness and tingling: High blood sugar can also cause numbness, burning, or tingling in the hands, legs, and feet. This is caused by diabetic neuropathy, a complication of diabetes that often occurs after many years of high blood sugar levels.

Long-term complications

Over time, the body’s organs and systems can be harmed by high blood sugar. Blood vessels become damaged, and this can lead to complications, including:

  • heart attack or stroke
  • damage to the eye and loss of vision
  • kidney disease or failure
  • nerve problems in the skin, especially the feet, leading to sores, infections, and wound healing problems

Causes

gestational diabetesGestational diabetes can occur during pregnancy.

There are several types of diabetes.

In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. As a result, the body lacks insulin and blood sugar levels rise.

People with type 1 diabetes must take insulin through a needle, pen, or insulin pump to keep blood sugar levels under control.

Only 5 percent of all people with diabetes have type 1, according to the American Diabetes Association.

In type 2 diabetes, the body does produce insulin but is unable to use it properly. The pancreas tries to make more insulin, but often cannot make enough to keep blood sugar levels under control. This is known as insulin resistance.

People with type 2 diabetes may need to take insulin, pills, or make diet or exercise changes to help control blood sugar levels.

Gestational diabetes can happen when insulin resistance and high blood sugar levels appear during pregnancy. This must be monitored throughout pregnancy, as it can lead to complications for the mother and the baby. Gestational diabetes usually goes away after delivery.

Cystic fibrosis: Diabetes can also be linked to this condition.

Hyperglycemia refers to a blood sugar level that is higher than normal. Diabetes is the main cause, but people who take beta blockers and certain steroids may also experience high blood sugar.

Risk factors for high blood sugar

The exact cause of type 1 or type 2 diabetes is not known. Some factors may make a person more likely to develop these conditions, however.

Type 1 diabetes

Researchers believe certain genetic or environmental factors may make people more likely to get type 1 diabetes. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) say certain genes play a role, and other factors such as viruses and infections may also be involved.

The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundationsay that there is nothing a person can do to prevent type 1 diabetes, and it is not related to eating, exercise, or other lifestyle choices. Type 1 diabetes usually begins during childhood or early adulthood.

Type 2 diabetes

No single factor has been identified, but the following risk factors make developing type 2 diabetes more likely:

  • having certain genes that are linked to diabetes
  • being overweight or inactive
  • having a parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes
  • having African-American, Alaska Native, American Indian, Asian-American, Hispanic, or Pacific Islander ethnicity
  • being aged over 45 years
  • receiving treatment for high blood pressure, or having blood pressure of 140/90 or higher
  • having low levels of “good” HDL cholesterol or high levels of triglycerides

Healthy blood sugar

Regular blood sugar testing

Regular blood sugar testing can help people with diabetes keep their blood sugar levels under control.

People who have high blood sugar should discuss their target levels with their doctor.

Regular testing may be needed to find out if these are within a healthy range. Each individual is different and levels can vary from person to person.

To determine a person’s blood sugar levels, blood tests may be taken after not eating for 8 hours, 2 hours after a meal, or at both times.

Some people may also take a glucose tolerance test, which requires the patient to drink a sugary liquid and get blood tests afterward.

The American Diabetes Association recommend a pre-meal blood sugar level of 80-130 milligrams per deciliter. Around 1 to 2 hours after the beginning of a meal, blood sugar should be less than 180 milligrams per deciliter.

The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE) state that blood sugar should be below 110 milligrams per deciliter after fasting.

Around 2 hours after eating a meal, the AACE recommend a blood sugar target of fewer than 180 milligrams per deciliter.

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