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How to handle a diabetes emergency

How to help a friend with diabetes

“A friend at work is diabetic, and I’ve never really thought about it before because he seems to handle it really well. But last month he had a scary episode where he started shaking and we had to put sugar on his tongue. How can I help him to feel okay about it?” Sini Webster

Dear Sini,

The word “diabetes” can lead to (unnecessary) concerns in the workplace about productivity and reliability. Co-workers who don’t have much information about the condition often feel unsure how to treat diabetic colleagues. Especially when they’re testing blood sugar, taking medication and possibly having hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) episodes during work time.

The person with diabetes may feel insecure, embarrassed and afraid of being seen as different. It can be difficult to know how to support or assist them.

The most important thing is to develop trust so that the person with diabetes knows that they will not be made fun of or penalised for having diabetes. Everyone involved needs accurate information about diabetes and how to manage it. Good communication and co-operation lead to a healthier, more productive workplace.

What is a diabetes emergency?

The shaking was probably caused by an episode of low blood sugar. Other symptoms include sweating, heart palpitations, anxiety and – if the blood sugar is very low – disorientation.

It’s important for those with diabetes to choose a few colleagues who know how to quietly assist and not panic.

What to do in a diabetes emergency

  1. Encourage the person with diabetes to have either a few sweets, 2 to 4 teaspoons of sugar in a little water or half a glass of Coke or juice. If they are unable to swallow, place the sugar or some jam on their tongue.
  2. Once their blood sugar has been raised by the sugary food, they should have something healthy to eat to stabilise it: a piece of fruit or a slice of health bread and peanut butter.
  3. If possible, they should test their blood sugar at this point.
  4. If they are disorientated or unconscious, call an ambulance: it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

– Jeannie Berg, Diabetes Educator

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  1. Pauline Pauline

    Everyone talks about what to do when blood sugar is too low. What does one do when someone’s blood sugar is to high ? What are the symptoms of high blood sugar ?

    • Hi Pauline!
      Good point – that’s largely because low blood sugar can result in an emergency (coma) whereas high blood sugar is generally not as urgent. That said, high blood sugar can also result in a coma if the blood sugar is extremely high for a long time. The symptoms vary from person to person, but include exhaustion, needing to pee a lot, blurry vision, headaches and irritability. Here’s an article on normal blood sugar, we’ll post one about high blood sugar symptoms soon!

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Sweet Life is a registered NPO/PBO (220-984) with a single goal: to improve diabetes in South Africa. We are funded by sponsorships and donations from aligned companies and organisations who believe in our work. We only share information that we believe benefits our community. While some of this information is linked to specific brands, it is not an official endorsement of that brand. We believe in empowering people with diabetes to make the best decisions they can, to live a healthy, happy life with diabetes.