The human body naturally has sugar, or glucose, in the blood. The right amount of blood sugar gives the body’s cells and organs energy. An excess level of blood sugar is known as hyperglycemia.
The liver and muscles produce some blood sugar, but most of it comes from food and drinks containing carbohydrates.
The body needs insulin to keep blood sugar levels within a typical range. Insulin is a hormone that directs the body’s cells to take up glucose and store it.
If there is not enough insulin or it does not work properly, blood sugar builds up. High blood sugar levels can cause health problems.
This article explores what hyperglycemia feels like, why it occurs, and the signs of high blood sugar. Read on to find out more.
What is hyperglycemia?
Hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, is an issue that can affect people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes.
There are two main types, including:
- Fasting hyperglycemia: Occurs when a person with diabetes has blood sugar levels above 130 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) after not eating or drinking for 8 hours or more.
- Postprandial hyperglycemia: Occurs when someone with diabetes has blood sugar levels of 180 mg/dl or higher 1–2 hours after eating.
Having high blood sugar levels frequently or for prolonged periods can cause several adverse symptoms and increase the risk of severe complications over time.
Blood sugar serves as fuel for the body’s organs and functions.
However, having high blood sugar does not provide a boost in energy.
In fact, the opposite often happens because the body’s cells cannot access the blood sugar for energy.
According to the American Diabetes Association, symptoms of hyperglycemia include:
- high blood sugar levels
- high levels of sugar in the urine
- frequent urination
- increased thirst
People can experience high blood sugar levels in the morning, especially if they have diabetes.
However, anyone who thinks they have diabetes should speak with a doctor first.
How does high blood sugar affect the body?
High sugar in the blood can lead to several other symptoms and complications. They include:
- Urination and thirst: High blood sugar goes into the kidneys and urine. This attracts more water, causing frequent urination. This can also lead to increased thirst, even if someone drinks liquids.
- Weight loss: High blood sugar can cause sudden or unexplained weight loss. This occurs because the body’s cells are not getting the glucose they need, so the body burns muscle and fat for energy instead.
- Numbness and tingling: High blood sugar can also cause numbness, burning, or tingling in the hands, legs, and feet. This is due to diabetic neuropathy, a complication of diabetes that often occurs after many years of high blood sugar levels.
Over time, high blood sugar can harm the body’s organs and systems. Damage to the blood vessels can lead to complications, including:
What does high blood sugar feel like?
When a person has high blood sugar, they may:
- have a headache and other aches and pains
- find it hard to concentrate
- be very thirsty or hungry
- feel drowsy or tired
- have blurred vision
- feel their mouth is dry
- experience bloating
- need to urinate often
- notice that wounds take a long time to heal
High blood sugar and low insulin can lead to a rise in ketones and possibly diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), a serious complication that needs urgent medical attention.
If this occurs, an individual may experience:
- shortness of breath
- a fruity taste or smell on the breath
- a rapid heartbeat
- confusion and disorientation
In addition, the person’s blood sugar levels may be over 240 mg/dl.
Several types of diabetes can lead to high blood sugar.
In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. As a result, the body lacks insulin, and blood sugar levels rise.
People with type 1 diabetes must take insulin through a needle, pen, or insulin pump to keep their blood sugar levels within the target range.
Only about 5% of all those with diabetes have type 1, according to the American Diabetes Association.
In type 2 diabetes, the body does produce insulin but cannot use it properly. The pancreas tries to make more of the hormone but often cannot make enough to keep blood sugar levels steady. This is known as insulin resistance.
People with type 2 diabetes may need insulin, pills, dietary changes, or exercise to help manage blood sugar levels.
Gestational diabetes can occur when insulin resistance and high blood sugar levels appear during pregnancy. People should monitor this during pregnancy, as it can lead to complications for the pregnant individual and their baby. Gestational diabetes usually goes away after delivery.
Risk factors for high blood sugar
Doctors do not know what exactly causes diabetes. However, some factors may increase the risk, including the below.
Type 1 diabetes
Researchers believe certain genetic or environmental factors may make people more likely to get type 1 diabetes.
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases notes certain genes play a role and that other factors — such as viruses and infections — may have an impact.
The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation states that there is nothing a person can do to prevent type 1 diabetes. Eating, exercising, or other lifestyle choices will not change the outcome.
Type 1 diabetes usually begins during childhood or early adulthood, but it can happen at any age.
Type 2 diabetes
The following risk factors may increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes:
- having certain genes
- having overweight or obesity
- being physically inactive
- having a parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes
- having African American, Alaska Native, American Indian, Asian American, Hispanic, or Pacific Islander ethnicity
- being aged over 45 years
- receiving treatment for high blood pressure or having blood pressure above 130/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg)
- having low levels of “good” high-density lipoprotein cholesterol or high levels of triglycerides
Typical blood sugar
People who have high blood sugar should discuss their target levels with a doctor.
They may need regular testing to keep these within a healthy range. Each person is different, and levels can vary between individuals.
To find out their blood sugar levels, a person may need to fast for 8 hours, 2 hours after a meal, or at both times.
Some people may also take a glucose tolerance test, where they drink a sugary liquid and have a blood test after.
Managing blood sugar levels
Many people with diabetes must check their blood sugar levels daily with a glucose meter. This device takes a drop of blood, usually from a finger, and displays the sugar level within a few seconds.
People with type 1 diabetes will need to take insulin as their doctor recommends, usually several times a day.
Those with type 2 diabetes or gestational diabetes may need to change their diet and exercise habits. They may also need to take oral medications or insulin.
Preventing high blood sugar
Various strategies can help prevent hyperglycemia.
- Check their blood sugar levels as their doctor advises and take the correct amount of insulin if they have type 1 diabetes.
- Speak with a doctor or dietitian about which foods to eat or avoid, how much to eat, and how often.
- Take precautions to avoid infections, for example, through regular handwashing, as illness, such as a cold, can trigger an increase in blood sugar levels.
- Plan their food intake and exercise to balance blood sugar levels.
- Minimize stress as far as possible, for example, through exercise, getting enough sleep, and stress-reducing activities such as meditation or yoga.
Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia
Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, can occur when a person:
- has certain medical conditions
- uses specific medications
- does a lot of exercise
- skips meals or eats too little
It can also be a side effect of diabetes medicines. Taking too much insulin can result in low blood sugar levels.
Symptoms of low blood sugar may include:
- feeling weak or shaky
- sudden nervousness, anxiety, or irritability
- sweating or chills
- extreme hunger
- fast heart rate, or palpitations
A person can treat hypoglycemia rapidly by drinking fruit juice or eating a glucose tablet, sugar lump, or candy.
Anyone who has frequent episodes of low blood sugar should speak with a doctor. A healthcare professional may recommend changing the type or dose of medication.
When to consult a doctor
Anyone who experiences tiredness, increased thirst, frequent urination, or weight loss should consult a doctor, as these symptoms could indicate diabetes or another health problem.
A routine health check often involves blood sugar testing, even if the person has no symptoms.
Those with a family history of diabetes or other risk factors may need earlier or more frequent tests.
When a person has diabetes, their health and well-being depend on managing their blood sugar levels properly.
To improve or maintain a good quality of life, an individual should:
- consult doctor regularly
- take medications as a doctor has prescribed
- follow diet and exercise guidelines
These strategies can help a person with diabetes manage blood sugar and may also slow the progression of the condition.
These individuals should also carry a medical ID with them, especially if they use insulin, as this can provide important information in case of an emergency.
Many medical IDs are now available with a compact USB drive containing a person’s full medical record.