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Common Questions - Diabetic Ketoacidosis

What is diabetic ketoacidosis?

Diabetic ketoacidosis is a potentially life-threatening complication of diabetes.

It happens when a person’s insulin levels become too low, causing a harmful substance, called ketones, to build up in their blood.

It is more commonly seen in people with type I diabetes, but it can also affect those with type II diabetes.

What causes diabetic ketoacidosis?

Diabetic ketoacidosis happens when the body starts to run out of insulin. The body needs insulin to help the liver, muscle, and fat cells absorb glucose from the blood. The cells can then turn the glucose into energy. When insulin levels are low, the body breaks down fat for energy and releases a substance called ketones.

Diabetic ketoacidosis can be triggered by many factors, including:

  • having an infection
  • missing doses of insulin or being on too low a dose of insulin
  • taking certain medications, such as steroids or diuretics
  • cardiovascular disease
  • drug or alcohol misuse

Sometimes diabetic ketoacidosis can happen with no obvious trigger factor.

What are the warning signs of diabetic ketoacidosis?

Symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis can depend on how far the condition has progressed. Early on, you may notice symptoms that include:

  • peeing more than usual
  • feeling very thirsty
  • nausea
  • tummy pain
  • loss of appetite

In its later stages, you may have symptoms that include:

  • unusual or fruity smelling breath (like pear drops)
  • deep or fast breathing
  • fast heartbeat
  • vomiting
  • feeling very tired or sleepy
  • feeling confused
  • passing out

If you have diabetic ketoacidosis, you may also notice your blood and urine sugar and ketone levels are higher than normal when you check them with a home testing kit.

Can you get ketoacidosis from a low carb diet?

If you follow a low carbohydrate (low carb) diet, your body may enter a state called ketosis in which it breaks down fat for energy. This is a natural state that can raise your body ketone levels, but not to the dangerous levels seen in diabetic ketoacidosis.

Nutritional ketosis is not the same as the life-threatening condition diabetic ketoacidosis, but some people are at risk of developing ketoacidosis from following a low carb diet. These include people with:

  • type I diabetes
  • type II diabetes and a pancreas that doesn’t work properly
  • no pancreas
  • cystic fibrosis-related diabetes

If you fall into one of these high-risk groups, speak to your doctor before starting a low carb diet.

Can you die of diabetic ketoacidosis?

Yes. Diabetic ketoacidosis can lead to death if it is not treated quickly. It is therefore important to seek immediate medical attention if you suspect you may have diabetic ketoacidosis.

How do you treat diabetic ketoacidosis?

Diabetic ketoacidosis is a serious condition that is usually treated in hospital. Treatment for diabetic ketoacidosis includes giving you insulin, fluids, electrolytes, and nutrients directly into a vein. This helps to restore your levels of these substances back to normal.

You may also be monitored for any problems with the brain, kidneys and lungs.

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Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.

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