Hyperglycemia and How to Treat It


What is hyperglycemia?

Hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, occurs when glucose is trapped in the bloodstream due to a lack of insulin. The opposite of hyperglycemia is hypoglycemia.

Individual blood glucose ranges vary, so talk with your diabetes team about your threshold for high blood glucose levels. A reading above 8.9 mmol/L160 mg/dL indicates hyperglycemia according to the Joslin Diabetes Center, although symptoms may not be present until blood sugar levels reach 11.1 mmol/L200 mg/dL.

If left untreated, hyperglycemia may lead to severe dehydration, diabetic ketoacidosis and coma. The effects of tong-term hyperglycemia include damage to the eyes, kidneys, nervous system and heart.

Why does it occur?

Taking too little insulin, under-counting carbohydrates at mealtimes, stress, not exercising as much as planned, fluctuating hormones and illness can all contribute to hyperglycemia. Hyperglycemia can occur when your body is under physical stress, like when you’re fighting an infection or other illness if you’re recovering from an injury, or recently had surgery. Emotional stress also contributes to hyperglycemia as hormones produced in response to stress cause blood glucose levels to rise. It can also occur when insulin has expired or if its effectiveness has been reduced due to exposure to extreme heat or cold. Store your insulin within appropriate temperature ranges to maintain its effectiveness.

Initial signs and symptoms of hyperglycemia

  • Unquenchable thirst
  • Dry mouth
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent urination
  • Blurred vision
  • Recurring infections
  • Slow-healing cuts or sores

Advanced symptoms of hyperglycemia

  • Fruity-smelling breath
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Exhaustion
  • Coma

How do I treat hyperglycemia?

  • Check your blood sugar and see if it is above your target blood sugar range—target ranges vary per person.
  • If your blood glucose is above your upper target levels, try to lower with steady-state cardio such as a brisk walk, a brief workout on the elliptical or treadmill, or a slow jog.
  • Adjust insulin dosages, per your doctor’s instructions.
  • Drink water. Water helps prevent dehydration and helps your kidneys remove sugar through urine.
  • If your blood sugar is abnormally high, contact your health care team in the event of an emergency.
  • Take note of any reasons or potential changes to your routine that may be contributing to high blood sugar:
    • What did you eat or drink? Did you eat something higher in carbohydrates than usual?
    • Are you stressed?
    • Are you getting enough sleep?
    • Did you just finish working out? Read why your blood sugar can be high after exercise.
    • Are you traveling or has your exercise/eating schedule changed?

Along with a “sick day” plan, make a plan with your doctor about when you should seek medical assistance or when to take extra units of insulin or other medications. As you learn which methods are most effective at treating hyperglycemia, take note of them to use later. In your notes, be sure to include how much your blood sugar levels drop, any adjustments to medication and any relief of hyperglycemic symptoms.