Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) is an acute, serious, life threatening condition that can result in a diabetic coma or even death.  Glucose is the primary source of energy for the cells of the muscles, organs, and other tissues; insulin must be present in order for the cells to utilize glucose for energy.  Consequently, if the amount of insulin in the body is inadequate, then

1) the cells are unable to get the glucose they need for energy and 2) the glucose, which cannot be used by the cells without insulin, accumulates in the bloodstream (a.k.a. high blood sugar). Because the cells are literally starving, at this point, the body will begin to burn fat and muscle as an alternative source of energy; this process produces acids known as ketones, or fatty acids. The accumulation of ketones in the bloodstream (when it is a result of inadequate insulin and high blood glucose) is toxic to the body and will eventually lead to a chemical imbalance known as diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA).

If a person with type 1 diabetes is exhibiting the symptoms of DKA, but s/he has not yet been diagnosed with type 1 (for whatever reason), they won’t be looking for and probably won’t recognize their symptoms as being symptoms of DKA; unfortunately, in this situation, they may not seek medical attention until it’s too late. That’s why it is so important to know and be able to recognize the warning signs of type 1 diabetes, so that it can be diagnosed and treated before the lack of insulin, high blood glucose, and the resulting accumulation of ketones develops into DKA.

Early symptoms of DKA include:           

  • Extreme thirst and very dry mouth
  • Frequent urination
  • High blood glucose level
  • High level of ketones in the blood and urine
  • Rapid weight loss

Then, other symptoms appear:

  • Extreme fatigue, generalized weakness, sleepiness
  • Dry or flushed skin
  • Parched lips
  • Nausea, vomiting or abdominal pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fruity odor on the breath
  • Altered consciousness, mild disorientation, confusion

If you see these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately and ask to be tested for high blood sugar and ketones. When DKA occurs, it must be treated in the hospital and typically in an intensive care unit. The treatment involves administering insulin and fluids and close monitoring of certain chemicals in the blood (electrolytes). The patient will also be watched closely to make sure the brain doesn’t swell, as fluids are administered to treat dehydration associated with DKA.

Ketoacidosis (DKA) is dangerous and can be fatal, if untreated. If you have any of the above symptoms, contact your health care provider IMMEDIATELY, or go to the nearest emergency room of your local hospital.