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Signs You Have "Life-Threatening" Diabetes, Say Doctors

These symptoms could indicate an emergency.

Diabetes can cause a number of serious complications, from cardiovascular disease to blindness. One of the most acute and urgent is diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), which can be life-threatening. It occurs when blood sugar is consistently too high because there isn't enough insulin in the body to process it. This causes fat to be broken down too rapidly and the blood to become acidic. If DKA isn't treated promptly, it can result in a diabetic coma or death. According to the doctors at the Mayo Clinic and experts at the UK's Royal College of Nursing, here are some of the signs to watch for. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You Have "Long" COVID and May Not Even Know It.


You May Have Extreme Fatigue

woman lying her head down on a desk

Feeling extremely tired to the point that you're severely exhausted can be a sign of DKA. Diabetes occurs when the pancreas can't produce, or the body can't process, enough insulin to deliver blood sugar (glucose) to the body's cells for energy.


You May Have a Fruity Breath Smell

bad breath

This is one of the first symptoms doctors look for when they suspect someone may have DKA. Too many ketones in your bloodstream may cause your breath to smell like acetone, a fruity scent similar to nail polish remover. If you're diabetic and smell acetone on your breath, follow your doctor's recommended treatment. If you've already done so, call your doctor ASAP.


You May Have Frequent Urination

Door handle open to toilet can see toilet

Excess blood sugar is delivered to the kidneys, which work overtime to flush it out, causing frequent urination.  

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You May Have Extreme Thirst

Close-up of pretty young woman drinking water from glass

A telltale symptom of uncontrolled diabetes, this happens when there's more sugar in the blood than the kidneys can process and efficiently excrete from the body. The excess sugar stays in the bloodstream, pulling fluids from tissue and causing thirst. 


You May Have Extreme Weight Loss

woman on scale weight loss

According to a study published in the journal American Family Physician, this is the most common symptom of diabetic ketoacidosis, found in about 80% of people with the condition. Ketosis—the condition caused when the body burns fat instead of carbs—can cause quick weight loss in someone who's following the keto diet. When it happens in someone who's diabetic or unintentionally in someone who's potentially diabetic, it requires quick medical attention.


You May Have Oral Thrush Or Yeast Infections

woman, annoyed, frustrated fed up sticking her finger in her throat

High blood sugar and a weakened immune system—both of which can be cause by uncontrolled diabetes—are two of the most common causes of oral thrush, an overgrowth of yeast in the mouth. A yeast infection elsewhere on the body that won't go away might also indicate DKA. 


You May Have Muscle Wasting

Woman sitting on the bed with pain in neck

Blood sugar that's too high can cause muscles to atrophy, or shrink. This can be a sign of diabetic ketoacidosis.

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You May Have Vomiting

Woman Suffering From Nausea

Too much acid in the blood can cause abdominal pain or vomiting, frequently a late sign of diabetic ketoacidosis. Vomiting can increase the dehydration CKA causes, making symptoms like excessive thirst worse. And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor whose health and lifestyle content has also been published on Beachbody and Openfit. A contributing writer for Eat This, Not That!, he has also been published in New York, Architectural Digest, Interview, and many others. Read more about Michael