Medications for Diabetes

Medications for Diabetes

From oral medications to insulin injections, learn about different treatment options for diabetes.

How do you control your blood sugar levels? Many people with type 2 diabetes manage theirs just fine with diet, exercise and weight loss—especially in the early stages of the disease. Others need medication, too. If diet and exercise alone aren't reducing your blood sugar, ask your doctor whether medications or insulin therapy can help.

There are three main types of diabetes medications:

Oral diabetes medications
Oral medications (pills or tablets) are prescribed exclusively for people with type 2 diabetes. Why? For these drugs to work, the body must still produce at least some insulin. However, oral medications don't work for everyone with type 2 diabetes, especially for those who've had the disease for more than 10 years or who take more than 20 units of insulin a day.

Some common oral medications include second-generation sulfonylura, biguanide, thiazolidinedione and alpha-glucosidase inhibitor—all of which reduce blood sugar in a variety of ways. Some stimulate the pancreas to pump out more insulin. Others help insulin move glucose out of the blood and into the body's cells. Other oral diabetes medications slow the digestion of carbohydrates to help stabilize blood sugar.

Non-insulin injectable diabetes medications
Two kinds of injectable diabetes medications—taken before meals—also help control your blood sugar level. Exenatide is a fairly new drug that increases insulin production and delays stomach emptying (so you feel full, which helps with weight loss). Exenatide is often combined with certain oral medications to enhance blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes.

Pramlintide helps reduce A1c blood sugar levels in people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. It also promotes modest weight loss.

People with type 1 diabetes can't produce insulin and must take insulin injections or use an insulin pump to survive. People with type 2 diabetes also need insulin if healthy habits and other diabetes medications aren't enough. There are more than 20 types of insulin, so ask your doctor which kind is right for you. Because certain oral medications enhance insulin's effectiveness, your doctor may recommend that these be taken in combination with insulin injections to stabilize your blood sugar even more.

Like any drug, diabetes medications have side effects, including stomach upset, vomiting, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), skin rashes, and weight gain. Fortunately, most side effects tend to lessen with time. Ask your doctor for strategies to minimize side effects.

Keep in mind that diabetes is a progressive condition that advances over time, even with good management. As a result, your diabetes medication needs will likely change in response to your body's ability to regulate glucose and new developments in diabetes care.

Medically reviewed in June 2018.

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