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What is diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA)?

Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) is a condition that occurs when glucose levels are too high. People affected by diabetes do not have enough of the hormone insulin, which means that the body's cells are unable to get the energy they need from glucose. As a result, they try to use a different sort of fuel, and not necessarily a good one. The fuel they try to use produces toxic waste called ketones. Ketones can make people very unwell, a condition known as diabetic ketoacidosis.

Diabetic ketoacidosis, also called DKA, occurs when you don’t have enough insulin. It is mostly a problem for people with type 1 diabetes. A person with diabetes may have such low levels of insulin that his or her liver may produce unchecked levels of glucose and ketones, especially during illness or stress. It can occur in people with type 1 diabetes who have not yet been diagnosed.

Diabetic ketoacidosis can start innocently enough; you miss a dose of insulin, the insulin you’ve been using has gone bad, or your insulin pump tubing gets blocked. The lack of insulin leads to an undetected high blood glucose level, which can progress to a coma, shock, pneumonia, difficulty breathing, and even death.

Diabetic ketoacidosis can occur during periods of stress or illness, when the body releases hormones that promote the release of stored glucose and block the effects of insulin. Sometimes when you are sick and can’t eat, you may think, “I shouldn’t take insulin today.” But your body still needs insulin to cover its 24-hour insulin needs, even if you aren’t eating. Plus, you are likely producing extra glucose. So, in addition to your usual dose of insulin, you may actually need extra insulin. Drinking plenty of fluids will also help. Talk with your health care providers ahead of time about a plan of action for dealing with ketoacidosis and how to prevent it when you are stressed or ill.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.