Diabetic ketoacidosis 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 breaks down, waste products 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.
Diabetic ketoacidosis 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 diabetic ketoacidosis in people with type 1 diabetes.
People with type 2 diabetes can also develop ketoacidosis, but it is less common. It is usually triggered by uncontrolled blood sugar, missing doses of medications, or a severe illness.
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 health care 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.
If DKA is not treated, it can lead to severe illness or death.
Fluid buildup in the brain (cerebral edema)
Heart attack and death of bowel tissue due to low blood pressure
DKA is often a medical emergency. Call your health care 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:
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 -- 2014. Diabetes Care. 2014;37:S14-S80.
Eisenbarth GS, Buse JB. Type 1 diabetes mellitus. In: Melmed S, Polonsky KS, Larsen PR, Kronenberg HM. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 12th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 32.
Westerberg DP. Diabetic ketoacidosis: evaluation and treatment. Am Fam Physician. 2013;87:337-346.
Brent Wisse, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Metabolism, Endocrinology & Nutrition, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.