If blood sugar levels stay low for too long, it can become an emergency.
Both high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) and low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) can be dangerous to the body. For example, if diabetes goes untreated, blood sugar levels may remain high and cause damage to blood vessels and other parts of the body.
That said, when it comes to the day-to-day management of diabetes, low blood sugar (below 70 mg/dL) can be an emergency medical event. It requires immediate action to get blood sugar levels back within a normal range to avoid complications.
“The most sensitive organ to hypoglycemia is the brain,” says Ana Kausel, MD, endocrinologist in New York City. That’s because hypoglycemia causes the release of the “fight-or-flight” hormone known as epinephrine, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). Epinephrine is responsible for causing sensations of panic—racing heart, sweating, etc.
Symptoms of hypoglycemia range from mild (shakiness and lethargy) to much more severe. When blood sugar stays low for too long, it can result in unconsciousness, seizures, or even a hypoglycemic coma. Although it’s rare, hypoglycemia could even lead to death.
“Treat the hypoglycemic symptoms as they are happening because the more you wait, the more severe the consequences can be,” says Dr. Kausel.
Normally, you can treat hypoglycemia on your own by following the “15-15 rule.” That means consuming 15 grams of carbs to bring up your blood sugar levels, and then checking your levels after 15 minutes, according to the ADA. Repeat until your blood sugar levels get back above 70 mg/dL. Learn more here about the best foods to treat low blood sugar.
However, if low blood sugar symptoms become severe, you need immediate medical attention. This may require taking a glucagon injection (which helps get glucose back in the bloodstream), or calling 911.
Low blood sugar can be dangerous, so as best as you can, try to stay within a normal range. Learn more here about managing blood sugar levels here.
Hypoglycemia in adults without diabetes mellitus: clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and causes. Waltham, MA: UpToDate, , 2020. (Accessed on March 24, 2020 at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/hypoglycemia-in-adults-without-diabetes-mellitus-clinical-manifestations-diagnosis-and-causes.)
Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Arlington, VA: American Diabetes Association. (Accessed on March 24, 2020 at https://www.diabetes.org/diabetes/medication-management/blood-glucose-testing-and-control/hypoglycemia.)