Dangers of Not Taking Insulin or Other Diabetes Medication

As water wears down a shoreline, even a rocky one, high blood sugar wears down the health of people with diabetes.

Unless an individual can control their blood sugar through lifestyle, diet and exercise, prescription medications are the only option for preventing acute life-threatening conditions and avoiding or slowing the onset of diabetes complications.

Short-Term Dangers

The short-term dangers of not taking prescribed medication are symptoms of weakness, fatigue, mental confusion and the life-threatening condition of hyperosmolar syndrome.

Hyperosmolar syndrome is diagnosed in people with type 2 diabetes whose blood glucose and sodium levels are extremely high because of dehydration. Symptoms of weakness, increased thirst and urination, nausea, confusion and fatigue can develop gradually over days or weeks. Eventually, convulsions and coma may set in.

This condition usually requires hospitalization and aggressive treatment using IV fluids and insulin. Though symptoms are often relieved within hours, hyperosmolar syndrome can cause death, even with proper treatment. If people fall into a coma before seeking help, there is a 50 percent chance they will die from the disease.

Although the condition called ketoacidosis is uncommon with type 2 diabetes, it may occur. When the body cannot process glucose for energy, it breaks down fat for fuel. As fat is metabolized, it produces ketones.

Too many ketones cause increased urination and thirst, dry mouth, cool skin, nausea and vomiting. Eventually, there may be a drop in blood pressure, loss of consciousness, coma or death. Treatment involves hospitalization, IV fluids and insulin.

Ketoacidosis is a more common occurrence with type 1 diabetes.

Long-Term Dangers

A slow erosion of health is the silent, insidious danger of not taking medications as necessary for type 1 or type 2 diabetes. It puts people at risk for:

  • Vision problems: High blood sugar damages the eyes’ delicate blood vessels and may lead to conditions such as diabetic retinopathy. Caught early, these problems are treatable. However, diabetes is the primary cause of blindness in people younger than 65.
  • Neuropathy: Elevated blood glucose damages the body’s nerves, especially in the feet and hands. This can cause pain, tingling or numbness in the affected areas. Severe neuropathy may lead to amputation.
  • Cardiovascular disease: High blood sugar is hard on our blood vessels. The leading cause of death in people with diabetes is heart disease and stroke. Also, poor blood circulation increases the incidence of skin infection, particularly in the feet.
  • Dental problems: High glucose levels make people more susceptible to gum disease, which may lead to tooth loss. Inflammation related to gum disease has also been associated with heart problems.
  • Kidney disease: Elevated blood sugar increases the risk of kidney problems; about one-third of people needing dialysis have small blood vessel damage in their kidneys from diabetes.

"The key to making healthy decisions is to respect your future self. Honor him or her. Treat him or her like you would treat a friend or a loved one." — A. J. Jacobs

Sources: Intelihealth and Mayo Clinic
Photo credit: sean dreilinger / flickr creative commons

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