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How to Give Yourself an Insulin Injection

How to Give Yourself an Insulin Injection

Needle-phobic? No sweat. With practice, you can handle this aspect of your diabetes management with minimal stress.

It’s natural to feel anxious about giving yourself insulin injections, particularly if you’re not a fan of needles. But keep in mind: Insulin is injected into the layer of fat below the skin—what’s known as “subcutaneous” tissue—where there are no nerve endings. Plus, these days syringes and pen needles are designed in such a way that most people feel no pain at all.

Here’s what you need to know to handle this aspect of your diabetes management with a minimum of stress.

Practice makes perfect
A syringe is the most common way to give yourself an insulin injection, but it’s not the only one. Many people use insulin pens or pumps.

Like a syringe, a pen delivers insulin through a needle. A pump, meanwhile, relies on a catheter, placed under the skin, to get the job done. There are pros and cons of each. Your health care provider will help you determine which one is best for you.

Someone on your health care team—whether it’s your doctor, nurse or certified diabetes educator—will also walk you through the steps and be there with you when you’re ready to try it yourself for the first time. If you decide to use a syringe, consider practicing by injecting a saline- or water-filled syringe into an orange or a rolled-up washcloth to help you get a feel for the process.

Choosing an injection site
Where you inject insulin makes a difference, since insulin enters the blood at different speeds depending on the location. For example, insulin shots in the abdomen work fastest, while those given in the back of the upper arms, outer thighs and upper part of the buttocks work more slowly.

Since insulin is meant to be delivered into the fat layer just under the skin, it’s important to pick a site that you can see and reach. To help ensure that the insulin reaches your blood at about the same speed each time you give yourself a shot, stick with the same general area of your body—but not the same spot. If you inject in the exact same place each time, hard lumps or extra fatty deposits may develop. Not only are these unattractive, but they also affect the insulin’s ability to do its job.

Staying within the general area but injecting into different spots within that area is known as “rotating” injection sites. Say, for instance, you inject four times a day and all of the injections are in your abdomen. Here’s one way to make site rotation work on that body part:

  • Imagine the face of an old-fashioned clock on your abdomen.
  • Picture “12” below your belly button.
  • Your first injection would be made at the 12 o’clock spot, your second injection at 1 o’clock, the third at 2 o’clock and the fourth at 3 o’clock.

Rotating sites like these means you won’t return to 12 o’clock for four days—time enough for that spot to recover before you use it again.

A couple other tips to remember: Shoot to stay at least one inch between injection sites and if you inject into your abdomen, aim at least a couple inches away from your navel.

Wherever you choose to inject insulin, you’ll want to steer clear of moles and scars as well as any areas of your skin with swelling, inflammation or unusual changes in texture.

Needle know-how
After you’ve picked an injection site, make sure the skin is clean—washing with regular soap and water will do—and dry. It’s generally not recommended or necessary to use alcohol to clean the area.

Then follow these steps:

  1. Pinch a one- to two-inch portion of skin and fat between your thumb and first finger.
  2. With your other hand, hold the syringe or pen at a 90-degree angle to the skin and insert the needle with one quick motion. Make sure the needle is all the way in the pinched portion of the skin.
  3. Let go of the skin pinch, then inject the insulin. Push the plunger with your thumb at a moderate, steady pace until the insulin is fully injected. If using a syringe, keep the needle in the skin for five seconds. Keep it in 10 seconds if you’re using a pen.
  4. Remove the needle at the same 90-degree angle. Press the injection site with your finger for five to 10 seconds to keep insulin from leaking out.
  5. If you’re using a pen, remove the needle by replacing the large cover and unscrewing the cap. Leaving the needle on the pen can result in leakage or air bubbles.

Trash your sharps responsibly
You might be tempted to toss your used needles, syringes and lancets—known as “sharps”—into the trash or flush them down the toilet. Here’s why you shouldn’t: Doing so puts others at risk since anyone who comes in contact with a used sharp is in danger of an accidental needlestick.

Instead, place your sharps in a dedicated sharps container or something puncture-proof—like an empty laundry detergent jug or fabric softener bottle—and store it out of reach of children and pets until it’s about three-quarters full. Then close the container tightly with a screw-on cap and dispose of it.

Where, exactly, you throw it away depends on where you live. Different cities have different rules for handling medical waste. Check with your local department of sanitation for details.

Away from home? Use an old test strip bottle or empty prescription bottle to hold your used sharps until you get home and can dispose of them safely.

Medically reviewed in January 2019.

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