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Diabetic Ketoacidosis

Diabetic Ketoacidosis

Alternate Names

  • DKA


Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) is a condition in which the body has a severe deficiency of insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps regulate the level of glucose in the blood. Glucose is the main form of sugar in the body. DKA is a serious complication of diabetes.

What is going on in the body?

Diabetic ketoacidosis is a serious but treatable complication of diabetes. A person who has DKA has a significant deficiency of insulin in his or her body. Without insulin, the body is unable to move glucose from the bloodstream to the body cells. This results in high levels of glucose and acids in the blood. DKA occurs mainly in those who have type 1 diabetes. On unusual occasions, it can occur in those who have type 2 diabetes.


What are the causes and risks of the condition?

DKA is often the initial event that brings a child or young adult to a healthcare provider, resulting in the diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. DKA can also occur if a person with known diabetes fails to take the right amount of insulin at the right time. It is seen more often in people younger than the age of 19, but can occur in anyone who has diabetes.
Forty percent of the time, DKA is caused by an infection, most often in the urinary tract. Some other causes of DKA include:
  • complications of pregnancy
  • heart attack
  • injury
  • stress
  • stroke
  • surgery
  • trauma, or severe injury


What can be done to prevent the condition?

Knowledge of the early signs and symptoms of new-onset or poorly controlled diabetes can help prevent some cases. These signs and symptoms may include the following:
  • excessive hunger
  • excessive thirst
  • fatigue
  • general decline in health
  • increased urination
  • weight loss
People who have diabetes should take their insulin as directed. If a person is unable to eat, the healthcare provider should be contacted. He or she can give advice about insulin dosages.
People with diabetes are advised to check their blood glucose level regularly, as instructed by the healthcare provider. If the blood glucose level is high several times in a row, a person should contact the provider. It is important to seek early treatment for infections and other illnesses. Blood glucose levels need to be checked even more carefully when the person is ill for any reason.


How is the condition diagnosed?

The diagnosis of diabetic ketoacidosis begins with a medical history and physical exam. Blood glucose tests can monitor the effect of insulin on the body. The provider may order blood and urine tests to detect underlying infection or illness.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

DKA is generally a reversible problem, resulting in death only 2% of the time. Children with DKA are at high risk for death from cerebral edema (brain swelling). In fact, although DKA causes 70% of diabetes-related deaths in children younger than 10 years of age, damage to the brain and other organs is, overall, an uncommon complication of DKA. Most people recover without any long-term effects.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

DKA is not contagious and poses no risks to others.


What are the treatments for the condition?

Treatment is directed at the DKA and any underlying conditions. For example, antibiotics or surgery may be needed for an infection. Fluids and insulin are generally given through an intravenous tube (IV), usually in the arm. Salt replacement is also commonly needed and is supplied through the IV. People often need care in an intensive care unit with frequent monitoring. Treatment may last several hours or several days.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Getting too much fluid or the wrong kind of fluid can cause swelling of the brain, known as cerebral edema. A low blood glucose level is rarely a problem, but may occur if too much insulin is given. Antibiotics may cause allergic reactions, stomach upset, and other side effects.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

People who have diabetes need lifelong treatment. After an episode of DKA, the individual may need further instruction about diabetes. Education includes information on diet, exercise, insulin dosage, and blood glucose monitoring. A person's insulin dose may need to be changed in some cases.


How is the condition monitored?

The individual may have frequent visits with the healthcare provider until the diabetes is well controlled. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the provider.

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