What Are the Symptoms of Hypoglycemia?

February 14, 2020
The symptoms of hypoglycemia are caused by low blood sugar. There are mild clinical pictures of hypoglycemia and others that are more severe that can even cause seizures. In this article, we’ll tell you how to identify a drop in sugar levels.

People can confuse the symptoms of hypoglycemia with other medical conditions when the drop in blood sugar levels is mild. In fact, if you eat foods rich in carbohydrates, it may go unnoticed.

Hypoglycemia is when blood glucose levels, in other words, blood sugar levels, drop. Specifically, for a patient to be diagnosed with it, they need to have less than 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) of blood glucose.

Although you’ll see below that its causes are varied, it’s important to first understand how the body obtains glucose. The mechanism for obtaining it explains how, when the body fails at some point, symptoms of hypoglycemia occur.

Humans take glucose from foods. Not all foods that contain it are necessarily sugary or sweet. Thus, the body extracts glucose molecules from fruits and vegetables as well.

To be effective, glucose must enter the cells of tissues. There, it’s transformed into energy for cell functions. Insulin regulates this cell entry process.

Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas. It regulates the access of sugar that’s circulating in the blood inside the cells. This is the hormone that doesn’t work correctly in people with diabetes.

Glucagon, another hormone the pancreas produces, is the insulin antagonist. Glucagon has the function of stimulating the liver to break down the glycogen stored inside it and circulate blood glucose. Broadly speaking, we can say that insulin lowers blood glucose, while glucagon increases it.

In that hormonal “game”, coupled with other factors, the symptoms of hypoglycemia may appear. It will be mild or severe, depending on the amount of glucose circulating in the blood.

The symptoms of mild hypoglycemia

Many times, when the symptoms of mild hypoglycemia appear, they go unnoticed. This is a drop in blood sugar that isn’t powerful enough to affect vital organs badly.

The symptoms include:

  • Profuse sweating
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness, motor incoordination, and impaired vision
  • Drowsiness. Sometimes, more than sleepiness, it manifests as difficulty concentrating, as if the mind can’t think clearly.
  • Muscle tremors
A diabetic doing a blood sugar test.
Blood glucose levels below 70 mg/dL are considered hypoglycemia.

Read more here: How to Improve Your Diet if You Suffer from Diabetes

The symptoms of severe hypoglycemia

When the hypoglycemia is significant and blood sugar levels have severely dropped, the symptoms are:

  • Seizures. Usually in the form of severe muscle movements, such as jerking.
  • Fainting with loss of consciousness. It can last a long time, meaning the patient may not recover immediately.
  • Inability to feed. Sometimes, as an isolated symptom of hypoglycemia and, sometimes, as part of the clinical picture of seizures or fainting.

The causes of hypoglycemia

Five reasons may be behind the symptoms of hypoglycemia. The causes are generally preventable, except insulinoma (although it’s rare):

  • Diabetes. Paradoxically, although it’s a condition that increases blood sugar levels, it’s the most common cause of hypoglycemia. This is due to the medication used to treat diabetes. At the beginning of the treatment, until the right dose is discovered, or due to a change in routine, blood sugar levels can drop sharply.
  • Alcohol. In alcoholics, the symptoms of hypoglycemia aren’t uncommon. The underlying mechanism is that alcohol hinders the release of glucose by the liver. This is usually combined with long periods of fasting, meaning that an alcoholic doesn’t eat enough or at the right time.
  • Prolonged fasting. Long fasting periods can cause it, even though glucagon acts at the beginning. This is because it won’t be enough at some point. Diseases such as anorexia nervosa cause prolonged fasting. If a person doesn’t eat, their body doesn’t get the glucose it needs.
  • Drugs. Beyond the drugs used to treat diabetes, other medications can cause hypoglycemia as a side effect. For example, we can mention quinine, to treat malaria, or gatifloxacin, which is an antibiotic.
  • Insulinoma. A tumor of the pancreas that’s formed due to an overgrowth of the cells that produce insulin. Obviously, if there’s more insulin in the body, episodes of hypoglycemia will occur.

Many of the causes of hypoglycemia are linked to the pancreas.

Keep discovering in this article: Ten Types of Food to Avoid for Glucose Balance

What to do in case of a hypoglycemia

The symptoms of hypoglycemia, as we just explained, can be mild or severe. Thus, the course of action will depend on this classification.

If the hypoglycemia is mild, the most effective measure is to provide liquids that allow the person to get glucose quickly. You can try a glass of water with two tablespoons of sugar, a glass of a sugary drink such as soda, or 0.2 liters (200 cubic centimeters) of fruit juice, among others.

Furthermore, patients with severe hypoglycemia can’t eat anything, because they’ll either be unconscious or convulsing. In these cases, medical professionals artificially apply the hormone glucagon through an injection.

  • Rovira, A. “Fisiopatología de la hipoglucemia en la diabetes mellitus.” Endocrinología y Nutrición 49.5 (2002): 140-144.
  • Boltaña Lorenzo, A., and R. Insa Soria. “Hipoglucemia.” Revista Rol de Enfermería 34.5 (2011): 352-356.
  • González, JP Miramontes, et al. “Protocolo terapéutico de la hipoglucemia.” Medicine-Programa de Formación Médica Continuada Acreditado 10.18 (2008): 1217-1218.