Nurse-Approved Ways to Treat a Diabetic Emergency

Traveling and extreme summer heat can take a health toll on diabetics — but there are ways to help and prepare.

Chances are you probably know someone who has diabetes. Over 34 million Americans are diagnosed with the condition, and another 88 million have prediabetes (that’s nearly 1 in 3 adults.) During the summer, when the heat is blazing, and people with diabetes take a break from their day-to-day routines to travel, diabetic complications can be triggered. Add to that the issue of easily accessing meds (like insulin) while on the road, and a diabetic emergency can easily occur.

Luckily, if you or someone you encounter is suffering from a diabetic emergency, there are signs to look out for, and ways to help. Take it from Melinda Coffman, a registered nurse at Humana based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who recently stepped in to help two different people with diabetes on a recent summer trip with her family — all within five hours. 

While Coffman was at the airport, she saw a woman’s foot sticking out from under a bathroom stall. “Me, being a nurse, I went over,” she says. “I went underneath the stall and saw this woman, completely nonresponsive. She was clammy, pale, and almost completely passed out, hanging onto the grab bar for dear life.” 

With her experience in nursing, she knew the woman was probably suffering from low blood sugar. “I did what any nurse would do. I pulled her out of the stall and leaned her against me, while sitting on the bathroom floor. I assigned somebody to call 911 and somebody to get me juice right away.” After slowly giving the woman juice, Cofffman checked her blood sugar. “She ended up drinking the majority of the juice and she was able to come around a bit.” After the paramedics arrived 30 minutes later, the woman started responding more, her blood sugar had risen, and she was more stable. 

Flash forward to Coffman’s flight home a few hours later, when she encountered another diabetic emergency. “As soon as we took off a passenger said to the flight attendant, ‘I think I’ve got low blood sugar.'” The crew called overhead for any doctors or nurses, and Coffman stepped up. “The flight attendant had already given him a soda, so I ended up giving him protein and making him drink water” Coffman says.

She helped keep him calm throughout the flight and made sure paramedics would be on the ground when they landed. “He told me he had recently been diagnosed with diabetes and had been out of his medications for a couple of weeks. He was moving across the country, so he thought he’d wait to get established with a new doctor. I educated him on the importance of making sure he gets his prescriptions filled before going on a cross-country move. I gave him additional pointers to help him manage his new diagnosis of diabetes.” 

We asked this healthcare hero to share her tips for what to do if you also encounter someone suffering from similar diabetic emergencies. Here’s what to look out for and how you can step in to help. 

What are the signs of someone suffering from a diabetic emergency?

Coffman says these are common symptoms to look out for: 

  • Fainting or passing out
  • Cold to the touch and clammy
  • Slurred speech or slowness to respond
  • Altered mental state

How can you help someone suffering from a diabetic emergency, even if you’re not a medical professional?

If you’re the person responding to a similar situation, Coffman says to immediately have the person with diabetes ingest form of liquid sugar and offers these critical tips:

  • Call 911
  • Always assign tasks. “Be very clear: Look at someone and say, ‘You call 911,’ and ‘You get juice,’” Coffman tells us. “People always assume that it’s already being done, so you have to make sure that you’re assigning certain people to get emergency medical help right away.” 
  • Give sugar in a liquid form. “A lot of times, they’ll be too comatose to drink, but if they’re able to, get them something that’s high in sugar immediately, like apple juice, orange juice or grape juice. If all you have is a soda, that’ll work, but a non-carbonated beverage is preferable.” If they’re unable to drink, you’re limited as to what you can do until emergency help arrives. “Juices and liquids absorb faster,” says Coffman, “but in emergency situations, use what you’ve got — whether it’s a piece of candy, or a soft chocolate.” You just want to be sure it’s not a choking hazard. 
  • If they vomit, turn them on their side to prevent choking. 
  • Stay calm

Why traveling and extreme summer heat poses a threat to people with diabetes and how to prepare. 

  • Dehydration is the biggest concern. “If you’re dehydrated, your body doesn’t absorb medications as well,” says Coffman. Dehydration can pose a heightened risk for kidney failure for those with kidney issues or diabetes, she explains.  
  • Summer heat and humidity can cause dehydration. “You don’t want to get heatstroke, so you need to make sure you’re drinking plenty of water. If you’re outdoors, try to have a fan, or shade where you can escape the heat.” 
  • Sometimes people forget to plan ahead. Long layovers, delayed flights, and closed airport restaurants are the not-so-fun perks of traveling and can be very problematic for people with diabetes, says Coffman. “You have to be prepared with your medications — make sure you always have snacks, juices or soda that can bring your blood sugar up if it’s low.”
  • People can’t easily access their medication. “Make sure you always have your medications in either your purse or carry-on bag, instead of your checked luggage, so you’re never without those critical medications,” Coffman says. “Make sure you have everything you need to check your blood sugar.”

And above all, it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor if you have any questions on how to manage your diabetes.