Diabetic ketoacidosis

Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) is a dangerous complication of diabetes caused by a lack of insulin in the body.

Diabetic ketoacidosis occurs when the body is unable to use blood sugar (glucose) because there isn't enough insulin. Instead, it breaks down fat as an alternative source of fuel. This causes a build-up of a by-product called ketones.

Most cases of diabetic ketoacidosis occur in people with type 1 diabetes, although it can also be a complication of type 2 diabetes.

Symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis include:

  • passing large amounts of urine
  • feeling very thirsty
  • vomiting
  • abdominal pain

Seek immediate medical assistance if you have any of these symptoms and your blood sugar levels are high.

Read more about the symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis.

Who is affected by diabetic ketoacidosis?

Diabetic ketoacidosis is a relatively common complication in people with diabetes, particularly children and younger adults who have type 1 diabetes.

Younger children under four years of age are thought to be most at risk.

In about 1 in 4 cases, diabetic ketoacidosis develops in people who were previously unaware they had type 1 diabetes.

Diabetic ketoacidosis accounts for around half of all diabetes-related hospital admissions in people with type 1 diabetes.

Diabetic ketoacidosis triggers

These include:

Read more about potential causes of diabetic ketoacidosis.

Diagnosing diabetic ketoacidosis

This is a relatively straightforward process.

Blood tests can be used to check your glucose levels and any chemical imbalances, such as low levels of potassium. Urine tests can be used to estimate the number of ketones in your body.

Blood and urine tests can also be used to check for an underlying infection, which could be a trigger.

After diabetic ketoacidosis has been diagnosed, you'll probably need regular blood and urine tests to check how well you're responding to treatment.

Treating diabetic ketoacidosis

If the condition is diagnosed very early, it may be possible to relieve the symptoms with an insulin injection.

People with more advanced diabetic ketoacidosis will need to be admitted to hospital where they will be given a combination of insulin and fluids.

Read more about treating diabetic ketoacidosis

Preventing diabetic ketoacidosis 

If you have type 1 diabetes, it's important you follow your recommended treatment plan, both in terms of taking regular insulin injections as directed and monitoring your blood glucose levels, particularly if you feel unwell.

Read more about preventing diabetic ketoacidosis.

Complications of diabetic ketoacidosis

Diabetic ketoacidosis is potentially very serious. High levels of ketones in the blood disrupt normal working of many parts of the body. The more ketones in the blood, the more ill a person with diabetic ketoacidosis will become.

Left untreated, diabetic ketoacidosis can cause potentially fatal complications, such as severe dehydration, coma and swelling of the brain.

Read more about the complications of diabetic ketoacidosis.

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