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Diabetic ketoacidosis

Definition

Diabetic ketoacidosis is a problem that occurs in people with diabetes. It occurs when the body cannot use sugar (glucose) as a fuel source because there is no insulin or not enough insulin. Fat is used for fuel instead.

Byproducts of fat breakdown, called ketones, build up in the body.

Alternative Names

DKA; Ketoacidosis

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

People with type 1 diabetes do not have enough insulin, a hormone the body uses to break down sugar (glucose) in the blood for energy. When glucose is not available, fat is broken down instead.

As fats are broken down, acids called ketones build up in the blood and urine. In high levels, ketones are poisonous. This condition is known as ketoacidosis.

Blood glucose levels rise (usually higher than 300 mg/dL) because the liver makes glucose to try to combat the problem. However, the cells cannot pull in that glucose without insulin.

Diabetic ketoacidosis is often the first sign of type 1 diabetes in people who do not yet have other symptoms. It can also occur in someone who has already been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Infection, injury, a serious illness, missing doses of insulin, or surgery can lead to diabetic ketoacidosis in people with type 1 diabetes.

People with type 2 diabetes can also develop ketoacidosis, but it is rare. It is usually triggered by a severe illness. Hispanic and African-American people are more likely to have ketoacidosis as a complication of type 2 diabetes.

Symptoms

Symptoms can include:

  • Deep, rapid breathing
  • Dry skin and mouth
  • Flushed face
  • Fruity smelling breath
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pain

Other symptoms that can occur include:

Signs and tests

Ketone testing may be used in type 1 diabetes to screen for early ketoacidosis. The ketones test is usually done using a urine sample. Blood ketone testing is also now available, but it is more expensive than urine testing.

Ketone testing is usually done:

  • When the blood sugar is higher than 240 mg/dL
  • During an illness such as pneumonia, heart attack, or stroke
  • When nausea or vomiting occur
  • During pregnancy

Other tests for ketoacidosis include:

This disease may also affect the results of the following tests:

Treatment

The goal of treatment is to correct the high blood sugar level with insulin. Another goal is to replace fluids lost through urination and vomiting.

Most of the time, you will need to go to the hospital, where the following will be done:

  • Insulin replacement
  • Fluid and electrolyte replacement
  • The cause of the condition (such as infection) will be found and treated

You may be able to spot the early warning signs and make changes at home before the condition gets worse. It is important to stay in close touch with your doctor.

Expectations (prognosis)

Acidosis can lead to severe illness or death. Improved therapy for young people with diabetes has decreased the death rate from this condition. However, it remains a big risk in the elderly, and in people who fall into a coma when treatment has been delayed.

Complications

Calling your health care provider

This condition can become a medical emergency. Call your health care provider if you notice early symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis.

Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if you have:

  • Decreased consciousness
  • Fruity breath
  • Nausea
  • Trouble breathing
  • Vomiting

Prevention

People with diabetes should learn to recognize the early warning signs and symptoms of ketoacidosis. In people with infections or who are on insulin pump therapy, measuring urine or blood ketones can give more information than glucose measurements alone.

Insulin pump users need to check often to see that insulin is still flowing through the tubing, and that there are no blockages, kinks, or disconnections.

References

Eisenbarth GS, Polonsky KS, Buse JB. Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus. In: Kronenberg HM, Melmed S, Polonsky KS, Larsen PR. Kronenberg: Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2008:chap 31.


Review Date: 6/4/2012
Reviewed By: Shehzad Topiwala, MD, Chief Consultant Endocrinologist, Premier Medical Associates, The Villages, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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