Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) is a life-threatening problem that affects 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.
When fat is broken down to fuel the body, chemicals called ketones build up in the body.
As fat is broken down, acids called ketones build up in the blood and urine. In high levels, ketones are poisonous. This condition is known as ketoacidosis.
DKA is sometimes the first sign of type 1 diabetes in people who have not yet been diagnosed. It can also occur in someone who has already been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Infection, injury, a serious illness, missing doses of insulin shots, or surgery can lead to DKA in people with type 1 diabetes.
People with type 2 diabetes can also develop DKA, but it is less common. It is usually triggered by uncontrolled blood sugar, missing doses of medicines, or a severe illness.
Common symptoms can include:
- Decreased alertness
- Deep, rapid breathing
- Dry skin and mouth
- Flushed face
- Frequent urination or thirst that lasts for a day or more
- Fruity-smelling breath
- Muscle stiffness or aches
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stomach pain
Exams and Tests
Ketone testing is usually done when DKA is suspected:
- Most often, urine testing is done first.
- If the urine is positive for ketones, most often beta-hydroxybutyrate is measured in the blood. This is the most common ketone measured.
Other tests for ketoacidosis include:
- Arterial blood gas
- Basic metabolic panel, (a group of blood tests that measure your sodium and potassium levels, kidney function, and other chemicals and functions)
- Blood glucose test
- Blood pressure measurement
The goal of treatment is to correct the high blood sugar level with insulin. Another goal is to replace fluids lost through urination, loss of appetite, and vomiting if you have these symptoms.
If you have diabetes, it is likely your health care provider told you how to spot the warning signs of DKA. If you think you have DKA, test for ketones using urine strips or your glucose meter. If ketones are present, call your provider right away. DO NOT delay. Follow any instructions you are given.
It is likely that you will need to go to the hospital. There, you will receive insulin, fluids, and other treatment for DKA. Then doctors will find and treat the cause of DKA, such as an infection.
Most people respond to treatment within 24 hours. Sometimes, it takes longer to recover.
If DKA is not treated, it can lead to severe illness or death.
Health problems that may result from DKA include any of the following:
When to Contact a Medical Professional
DKA is often a medical emergency. Call your provider if you notice symptoms of DKA.
Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if you or a family member with diabetes has any of the following:
- Decreased consciousness
- Fruity breath
- Trouble breathing
If you have diabetes, learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of DKA. Know when to test for ketones, such as when you are sick.
If you use an insulin pump, check often to see that insulin is flowing through the tubing. Make sure the tube is not blocked, kinked or disconnected from the pump.
American Diabetes Association. Standards of medical care in diabetes -- 2015. Diabetes Care. 2015;38:S1-S76. PMID: 25537706 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25537706.
Pasquel FJ, Umpierrez GE. Hyperglycemic crises. In: Jameson JL, De Groot LJ, de Kretser DM, et al, eds. Endocrinology: Adult and Pediatric. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 46.
Westerberg DP. Diabetic ketoacidosis: evaluation and treatment. Am Fam Physician. 2013;87:337-46. PMID: 23547550 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23547550.