When blood sugar levels are high (hyperglycemia) or low (hypoglycemia), affected individuals may experience a variety of symptoms ranging from mild to severe. People whose symptoms are not treated can develop serious or even life-threatening complications. After eating foods containing carbohydrates, the digestive system can break them down into a type of sugar called glucose, which is the body’s main source of energy. This sugar then passes into the bloodstream and the hormone insulin allows glucose to enter cells and provide them with the energy they need to function.
Insulin plays a vital role in regulating blood sugar. If the body does not produce enough insulin or cells do not respond to insulin, it may have difficulty managing blood sugar levels. This can result in hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia. This article outlines the symptoms and potential complications of high blood sugar and low blood sugar.
Symptoms of Hyperglycemia
Symptoms of high blood sugar, or hyperglycemia, can include:
polydipsia, or feeling very thirsty
have a very dry mouth
polyuria, or frequent urination
glucosuria, or the presence of a high level of glucose in the urine.
If a person has severe high blood sugar they may:
have an altered mental status, such as a change in mood or problems with cognitive processes
have focal neurological problems or problems with the nerves, brain, or spinal cord in a specific area of the body
fall into a coma.
Complications of Hyperglycemia
If a person has untreated or uncontrolled high blood sugar for a long time, they may develop:
Retinopathy: This is damage to the blood vessels at the back of the eye. People with retinopathy can lose their sight or become blind.
Nephropathy: This is the deterioration of a person’s kidney function. People with nephropathy can end up suffering from kidney failure.
Neuropathy: This is damage to a person’s nervous system. People with neuropathy may experience weakness, numbness, and pain in the hands and feet.
Coronary artery disease (CAD): This is the most common form of heart disease. People with coronary artery disease may experience chest pain, heart attacks, or heart failure.
Cerebrovascular disease: This disease restricts blood flow to a person’s brain. This can lead to brain damage or strokes.
Peripheral vascular disease (PVD): People with peripheral vascular disease have decreased blood flow to the arms, legs, and some internal organs. Peripheral vascular disease can eventually cause a person’s tissue to die, sometimes resulting in the amputation of a limb. People with PVD can also experience heart attacks or strokes.
Symptoms of hypoglycemia
People with hypoglycemia have symptoms that develop quickly. Symptoms can vary from person to person. Mild or moderate symptoms may include:
dizziness or lightheadedness
feeling confused or irritable
fast or unsteady heartbeat
inability to see clearly
inability to speak clearly
In severe hypoglycaemia, the blood glucose level is very low. Symptoms of severe hypoglycemia can be the following:
loss of consciousness
inability to swallow food or drink safely
Severe hypoglycemia can be a life-threatening medical emergency requiring urgent medical attention.
Complications of hypoglycemia
People with mild to moderate hypoglycemia can treat their symptoms quickly by consuming fast-acting sources of glucose, such as candy, fruit juice, or soda. However, severe hypoglycemia can quickly lead to serious health complications:
loss of consciousness
In some cases, these complications can be fatal.
What can affect blood sugar?
The body regulates blood sugar using insulin. However, certain triggers can also influence a person’s blood sugar levels.
Triggers that may cause a person’s blood sugar to rise include:
eating large amounts of food, especially foods high in carbohydrates (sugars)
lack of physical activity
a lack of insulin due to health conditions, such as diabetes, or not taking diabetes medications enough
side effects of certain medications, such as steroids or antipsychotics
lack of sleep
short or long term pain
Triggers that can cause a person’s blood sugar to drop include:
skipping meals or not eating enough
eating foods with fewer carbohydrates than usual
drinking alcohol, especially if the stomach is empty
too much insulin from taking too many diabetes medications
engage in more intense physical activity than usual
Blood sugar naturally rises and falls throughout the day.
How to Manage Blood Sugar
People can manage their blood sugar levels:
eating a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables
taking medication prescribed by the doctor
eating at regular times
avoiding skipping meals
eating foods low in trans or saturated fats
eat foods low in sugar and salt
drink water instead of juice or soda
limit their alcohol consumption.
The body normally regulates blood sugar levels as we eat and absorb food. If a person’s body cannot regulate their blood sugar levels, they may experience various symptoms of high blood sugar or low blood sugar. These symptoms can be mild, moderate or severe. People with severe symptoms may need urgent medical attention. People with consistently high or low blood sugar can develop complications over time if left untreated. These complications can be serious or fatal. However, it is possible to take simple steps to manage and regulate your blood sugar and avoid complications.