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Hypoglycemia (hy-po-gly-SEE-mee-a) is a condition that occurs when the amount of sugar in the blood gets too low.

Melinda’s Story
Melinda was at the mall with friends, when she started to feel weak and uncoordinated. She developed a pounding headache, began to shake and sweat, and could not see very well. Because Melinda had diabetes, her doctor had warned her about these symptoms, and she knew they meant that her blood sugar had gotten too low. She carried candy in her backpack at all times for just such an occasion. Melinda told her friends that she should not have skipped lunch because a sensible diet and regular meals help prevent hypoglycemia in people being treated for diabetes. Melinda told them that hypoglycemia can cause coma * if not treated. After eating her candy bar, Melinda felt better within minutes.

What Is Hypoglycemia?

Hypoglycemia means low (“hypo”) blood sugar (“glycemia”). Hypoglycemia is not a disease; it a symptom of a problem the body has with regulating blood sugar. Its opposite, hyperglycemia (hy-per-gly-SEE-mee-a), means too much sugar in the blood, which is one of the features of diabetes.

Many people being treated for diabetes experience hypoglycemia. Diabetes is a disorder characterized by high levels of sugar in the blood due to the body’s inability to make enough of the hormone insulin or to respond to insulin normally. People being treated with insulin for diabetes sometimes take too much insulin or may not eat enough, as happened to Melinda at the mall. In fact, 90 percent of people with insulin-dependent diabetes have occasional periods of hypoglycemia.

Severe hypoglycemia sometimes is called “insulin shock,” because symptoms occur if people take too much insulin or if their body makes too much insulin. It is rare for people without diabetes to have hypo-glycemia. The two main categories of hypoglycemia are reactive hypo-glycemia and fasting hypoglycemia.

Reactive hypoglycemia

Reactive hypoglycemia occurs after eating, especially after a meal containing lots of sugary or starchy foods. The sugar from the meal causes the body to make a great deal of insulin rapidly in order to keep blood sugar from rising too high. But the body makes so much insulin that the blood sugar level drops too low instead.

* coma (KO-ma) is an unconscious state, like a very deep sleep. A person in a coma cannot be woken up, and cannot move, see, speak, or hear.

* anorexia nervosa (an-o-REK-se-a ner-VO-sa) is an emotional disorder characterized by dread of gaining weight, leading to self-starvation and dangerous loss of weight and malnutrition.

* tumor (TOO-mor) usually refers to an abnormal growth of body tissue that has no known cause or physiologic purpose.

Fasting hypoglycemia

Fasting hypoglycemia occurs several hours after the person’s last meal. It can happen to people with diabetes or as a result of several other conditions, including anorexia nervosa * , starvation, a tumor * of the pancreas (the gland that secretes insulin), cancer, and certain hormonal and metabolic diseases.

How Is Hypoglycemia Diagnosed?

To find out if a person has hypoglycemia, doctors ask about symptoms and whether they go away when the person eats sugar. The doctor also will examine the patient and take a medical history to look for the specific features of disorders known to be associated with hypoglycemia. Blood tests performed when the person is having symptoms of hypo-glycemia can confirm low levels of sugar in the blood, if present, and can measure the levels of insulin and other hormones and substances involved in the control of blood sugar.

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