Diabetic ketoacidosis is a potentially fatal health condition that can affect people with type one diabetes. It occurs when insulin levels are too low for body cells to properly metabolize glucose. Without energy from glucose, cells begin to break down fat deposits instead. Byproducts of fat breakdown called ketones are released into the bloodstream, which can be toxic in high enough levels. A diabetic person who experiences shortness of breath, drowsiness, mental confusion, and other symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis should seek hospital care right away to reduce the risk of coma or death.
Insulin hormones help cells absorb and metabolize sugars from the bloodstream. Since people with type one diabetes are insulin deficient, their bodies cannot use glucose sugars as an energy source. Cellular energy must be derived from fat and muscle tissue, which leads to the production of ketones and other fatty acids. The risk of diabetic ketoacidosis is greatest when a person is very ill, under high stress, or misses a regular dose of insulin.
Symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis tend to come on very quickly when insulin levels drop. Over the course of one or two days, a person can become dehydrated, fatigued, and nauseous. Abdominal pain, confusion, and dizziness are common as well. If the condition goes untreated, an individual's breathing can become very rapid and shallow. Diabetic coma can result when breathing problems become severe because the brain does not receive enough oxygen.
It is important for people who know they are at risk of diabetic ketoacidosis to recognize symptoms as soon as they begin. At a doctor's office or hospital, blood and urine tests can confirm the presence of excess ketones, unmetabolized glucose, and low insulin. A doctor may also take chest x-rays and perform blood pressure tests to gauge the severity of symptoms and make the best treatment decisions.
When diabetic ketoacidosis is discovered before serious complications occur, it can usually be reversed with a dose of insulin and increased fluid intake. Body systems usually return to normal in a few hours without lasting damage. If severe dehydration and breathing problems have already begun, hospitalization is necessary to provide a patient with intravenous fluids, medications, and oxygen therapy. Once the patient is stable, he or she is usually admitted into a hospital room so doctors can monitor symptoms for several days. Frequent follow-up visits with a doctor are important to make sure the condition is kept under control.