How to treat a diabetic emergency

If this is an emergency, please call 000 immediately.

What is a diabetic emergency?

If you are unsure whether the patient has low or high blood sugar, give them a drink containing sugar (DO NOT use ‘diet’ soft drinks, eg Coke Zero, Pepsi Max).

Giving any form of sugar can save a patient’s life if blood sugar is low, and will not cause undue harm if blood sugar is high.

Diabetic emergencies are when blood sugar levels become either too high or too low.

This guide is regularly updated and aligns with the current edition of Australian First Aid (4th edition, 7/2011)

Signs and Symptoms

High blood sugar


  • Excessive thirst
  • Tiredness
  • Blurred vision
  • Hot, dry skin
  • Smell of acetone on breath


Low blood sugar


  • Weakness, shaking
  • Sweating
  • Headache
  • Faintness, dizziness
  • Lack of concentration
  • Teariness or crying
  • Irritability or altered behaviour
  • Hunger
  • Numbness around the lips and fingers


These may progress quickly to:


  • Slurred speech
  • Confusion
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizures


What to do

High blood sugar (hyperglycaemia)

If the patient has medication, ask if they need assistance administering it. Only help the patient if they request it.


Encourage the patient to drink water.


Seek medical aid if symptoms worsen.


If the patient has not yet been diagnosed with diabetes, encourage them to seek medical aid.

Low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia)

Help the patient to sit or lie in a comfortable position.


Reassure the patient.


Loosen any tight clothing.


Give the patient sugar, such as fruit juice or a soft drink (NOT ‘diet’ eg Coke Zero, Pepsi Max), sugar, jellybeans, glucose tablets.

Continue giving sugar every 15 minutes until the patient recovers.


Follow with carbohydrates, eg a sandwich, milk, fresh or dry fruit, or dry biscuits and cheese.

If there is no improvement in symptoms or the patient becomes unconscious, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.


Diabetic emergency fact sheet

DRSABCD poster

Related advice

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If an adult is unresponsive and not breathing normally, you need to call 000 for emergency help and start CPR straight away. Learn what to do.

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The St John DRSABCD Action Plan is crucial in assessing whether a patient has any life-threatening conditions and if any immediate first aid is necessary.


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