Giving First Aid to Diabetics
Please note that this information does not qualify you as an official first aider, and Virtual College advise calling 999 in the first instance at the scene of an emergency.
This material and any associated assessments do not constitute a qualification or accreditation as an official first aider. All content provided is for general information only.
Virtual College advocate dialling the emergency services before attempting any form of first aid.
Giving First Aid to Diabetics
Diabetes is an increasingly common disease, with more than 4 million people living with the condition in the UK. In most cases diabetes is a lifelong disease with major implications, and a potentially significant effect on the person’s overall health and wellbeing. Diabetes needs regular management and in emergency situations, someone with diabetes may also need immediate first aid attention as a result of their condition. In this article we’ll look at the two different types of diabetes, the health issues that can arise as a result of the condition, and some basic first aid for diabetics.
What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a condition that inhibits the production of insulin; an essential hormone that facilitates sugar absorption at a cellular level. Because they can’t produce insulin properly, diabetics can’t regulate the amount of sugar that builds up in their bloodstream, leading to a variety of health issues.
Diabetes is generally split into two distinct types - Type 1 Diabetes, which is actually an autoimmune disease, caused when the body’s white blood cells start attacking the cells that produce insulin in the pancreas, and Type 2 diabetes, which is a metabolic condition. The type of diabetes does not necessarily affect the type of diabetic injuries or accidents that a person might suffer, or the care that you should administer in these conditions.
How Does Diabetes Affect Health?
Most diabetics find that they can minimise the impact that diabetes has on their health and wellbeing by regulating their sugar levels or taking regular doses of insulin. Lifelong diabetics learn to manage the condition and generally do not need specialist diabetic accident treatment on a day to day basis. However, people suffering from diabetes can often be caught out by unusual or unexpected circumstances - a sudden period of intense exercise, such as running for a bus, a meeting that runs on too long and forces them to miss a meal, or a sudden influx of complex sugars caused by eating a very large meal.
The impact of these circumstances varies from patient to patient, but generally diabetic health complications result in one of two things happening - hyperglycemia, caused by an excess of sugar in the blood, or hypoglycemia, caused by the absence of sugar in the blood. Diabetes-Related Emergencies
Someone suffering with hypoglycemia (or a lack of sugar in the blood) will present with the symptoms of extreme fatigue - weakness, a feeling of faintness/dizziness and hunger. They may also be confused, and will have cold/clammy skin. In some cases hypoglycemia can result in irrational behaviour and/or trembling.
If you’re not sure whether or not someone is suffering from hypoglycemia, you could try looking for a medical bracelet - many diabetics wear these, as a way of letting people know about their condition, and as a means of providing vital information in the case of an emergency.
Someone suffering from Hyperglycemia (or an excess of sugar in the blood) will present with warm skin, a rapid pulse, and unexpected drowsiness. They may also be extremely dehydrated, and find that they need to urinate very frequently as a result of their body trying to expunge the excess sugars from their system. Because large amounts of sugar in the bloodstream can be toxic, you may notice that someone suffering a hyperglycemic episode rapidly becomes less responsive - slurring words and failing to respond to gentle stimuli as their condition worsens. This is a sign that they are starting to go into a hyperglycemic coma, and will need immediate emergency treatment.
How to Help Someone With Diabetes
If someone appears to be hyperglycemic, you must dial 999 and call them an ambulance immediately. If they fall unconscious, put them in the recovery position, and ensure that their airways are open until help arrives.
Read our article on putting someone in the recovery position to learn more about this potentially life-saving technique.
If someone appears to be hypoglycemic, you should start by having them sit/lie down, and then check to see if they are carrying sugar packets and/or sweets. If they are, administer these immediately. If not, find another source of sugar (such as fruit juice or chocolate) and help them to eat this. During the episode you should remain vigilant and look out for any signs of the patient's condition worsening. If they do become more fatigued/confused, you call 999 immediately and wait with them until an ambulance arrives.
If you can’t tell whether someone’s blood sugar levels are too low or too high, treat them for hypoglycemia by giving them sugar, and then monitor them closely. If they are hypoglycemic you will notice an immediate improvement, but if they are hyperglycemic the small amount of sugar is unlikely to worsen their condition significantly. When treating a diabetic for both hyper and hypoglycemia, you should also call 999 and, if they fall unconscious, make sure that you put them into the recovery position and check their airways are clear as soon as possible.
Many of the courses that Virtual College can deliver will help you in first aid situations such as those arising from diabetic emergencies - click here to visit our Health and Safety course page to find out more.