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Signs and Symptoms of Diabetic Coma

written by: Debbie Roome • edited by: lrohner • updated: 1/14/2011

Diabetic coma is a potential problem when a diabetic does not have good sugar control or has not yet been diagnosed with the disease. Read on to learn about the diabetic coma symptoms and what causes them.

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    What Causes a Diabetic Coma

    Diabetes is a chronic condition characterized by high blood sugar levels. Diabetics manage this condition by trying to keep their blood sugar levels stable through diet, exercise and medications.

    A diabetic coma's root cause is abnormal blood sugar levels. Too much glucose in the blood can cause hyperglycemia and too little glucose can cause hypoglycemia. Both of these are potentially dangerous conditions that can lead to coma and possibly death.

    Certain diabetic coma symptoms are similar whether caused by high or low blood sugar, but there are also noticeable differences. A person in a coma caused by high blood sugar normally displays symptoms for days or weeks beforehand. Conversely, a coma caused by low blood sugar can come on very quickly and with little or no warning. Since treatment will differ greatly, the cause of the condition needs to be determined before treating the problem.

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    Diabetic Coma Symptoms Caused by High Blood Sugar

    High blood sugar levels can lead to a number of symptoms. These are often apparent in a person before diagnosis and will recur if diet and medication are not attended to as advised by a doctor. High blood sugar levels cause the kidneys to produce extra urine in an attempt to remove glucose from the blood. If sugar levels stay high, the person will become extremely dehydrated which leads to a loss of consciousness. High blood sugar levels produce the following symptoms:

    • Increased thirst
    • Need to urinate frequently
    • Fatigue
    • Deep sighing or shortness of breath
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Stomach pain
    • Unsteady gait
    • Confusion
    • Fruity breath odor
    • Flushed skin
    • Drowsiness and a gradual loss of consciousness

    If hyperglycemia is not treated and blood sugar levels remain high for a prolonged period of time, the diabetic will eventually find themselves in a state called ketoacidosis, and ultimately can fall into a diabetic coma.

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    Symptoms of a Diabetic Coma Caused by Low Blood Sugar

    Low blood sugar can be caused by strenuous exercise, alcohol consumption, and a lack of carbohydrates in the diet. It can also be caused by excess insulin in the blood, particularly if the person injects more insulin than is needed or does not adjust the dosage after a stomach upset or other illness. It is essential to test blood sugar levels more frequently if there have been some unexpected highs or lows in previous days or if the person has just changed to a new type of insulin. The following are signs of hypoglycemia:

    • Shakiness or trembling
    • Tiredness
    • Sweating
    • Hunger
    • Nausea
    • Irritability
    • Irregular heart beat that may race
    • Hostility and aggression towards those trying to help
    • Numbness in hands and feet
    • Headache
    • Drunken behavior

    If hypoglycemia is not treated immediately, the diabetic can experience seizures, become unconscious and will eventually fall into a diabetic coma that can lead to permanent brain damage or even death.