Whether your child takes insulin or pills or both to control diabetes, it's important
to follow the diabetes management plan prescribed by the diabetes health care team
to avoid problems and reduce the risk of side effects.
What Is Insulin?
Insulin is a hormone that allows sugar, or glucose,
to get into the body's cells to be used for energy. All people with type
1 diabetes and many people with type
2 diabetes need to take insulin every day.
The overall goal of treatment with insulin (and other diabetes medicines) is to
achieve the best match possible between the amounts of insulin given and the person's
individual needs for insulin throughout the day and night. In this way, blood
sugar levels can be kept as close to normal as possible to help avoid both short-
and long-term problems from diabetes.
Treatment plans are designed around the pattern of insulin normally supplied by
the pancreas throughout the day in someone without diabetes. In general, this involves
providing a fairly steady "background" level of insulin to control blood sugar levels
between meals and overnight, along with doses of rapid- or short-acting insulin to
handle the fast rises in blood sugar that occur with meals.
The types of insulin used and the amount taken each day will vary depending on
your child's diabetes management plan. Some plans include two injections each day,
while others involve several more or the use of an insulin pump to keep blood sugar
levels under control.
The diabetes health care team will help you find the best treatment plan for your
There are a few different kinds of insulin. They differ from one another based
how long they take to start working
when they work their hardest to lower blood sugar
how long they last
The text below outlines the types of insulin and how they work. Remember that the
actual time it takes for insulin to work, when it peaks, and how long it lasts will
vary from person to person, and even from day to day as the body's handling of and
response to insulin may change. That's why it's important to check blood sugar levels
When It Starts Working: 10–15 minutes When It Works Hardest: 30–90
minutes How Long It Lasts: 4 hours How It Works: Used to help your
body handle glucose that you absorb when eating a meal. For the best results, it is
usually taken several minutes before or just before eating. Looks clear and can be
mixed with intermediate-acting insulin in the same syringe.
When It Starts Working: 30–60 minutes When It Works Hardest: 2–4
hours How Long It Lasts: 6–9 hours How It Works: Used to help
your body handle glucose that you absorb when eating a meal, but lasts longer than
rapid-acting insulin. Take it 30 minutes before eating. Looks clear and can be mixed
with intermediate-acting insulin in the same syringe.
When It Starts Working: 1–4 hours When It Works Hardest: 3–14
hours How Long It Lasts: 10–24 hours How It Works: Works to control
glucose between meals and during the night. Looks cloudy or and can be mixed with
rapid- and short-acting insulin in same syringe.
When It Starts Working: 1–2 hours When It Works Hardest: does
not peak How Long It Lasts: 18–24 hours How It Works: Works to
control glucose between meals and during the night. Looks cloudy or clear and can't
be mixed with other insulin in the same syringe.
You can't "turn off" insulin once it's been injected — it's going to work
no matter what — so it's important to time and match the amounts of insulin
given with the body's needs throughout the day and night. Following a meal plan from
day to day and getting regular physical activity will help make it easier for your
child to achieve good diabetes
Despite the best efforts of parents, caregivers, health care providers, and kids
with diabetes themselves, blood sugar levels cannot be perfectly controlled. In all
kids with diabetes, there will be times when the amount of insulin taken is too much
or too little for the body's needs and the blood sugar level will be too
high or too low.
One of the most common problems in people who take insulin is low
blood sugar, or hypoglycemia. While hypoglycemia can happen at any time in people
who take insulin, it's more likely to happen under certain conditions — for
example, if the person eats less or exercises more than usual.
Hypoglycemia is also more likely in the first few weeks or months after someone
develops type 1 diabetes. During this period — sometimes called a diabetic "honeymoon"
— a child's pancreas may temporarily recover the ability to make insulin. If
the insulin dose is not appropriately reduced, the combination of the child's own
insulin and the injected insulin may be too much for the body, driving blood sugar
levels down too low.
In some kids with diabetes, repeated insulin injections can cause a thickening
or lumpiness of the fatty tissue beneath the skin, called lipodystrophy (or lipohypertrophy).
This is more likely if injections are given in the same area again and again rather
than in different injection sites as recommended. Usually, this is only a cosmetic
problem. But in some cases, insulin injected in areas of skin with lipodystrophy may
not be absorbed into the bloodstream as it should. This can make the insulin dose
take longer than usual to work.
Tips for Using Insulin
The acids and digestive juices in the stomach and intestines would break down and
destroy insulin if it was swallowed, so it can't be taken as a pill. For now, the
only way to get insulin into the body is by injection with a needle or with an insulin pump.
Before giving an insulin injection, always check the bottle to make sure you're
giving the right type of insulin and that it hasn't expired. You also should inspect
the bottle for any changes to the insulin — for example, don't use insulin that
has particles or crystals floating in it.
Here are some guidelines on storing bottled insulin (check the manufacturer's instructions
for storage of insulin pens):
Unopened bottles of insulin should be stored in the refrigerator. Throw away any
insulin that's been frozen or is past the expiration date on the bottle.
Opened bottles of insulin can be stored in the refrigerator or kept at room temperature.
Be careful not to let the vial become overheated by leaving it in direct sunlight
or in a car on a sunny or hot day. For travel or outdoor activities, store insulin
as you would perishable food (but do not freeze it).
Depending on the type of insulin, opened bottles should be thrown away after
4 to 6 weeks (check manufacturer's instructions), whether they have been kept refrigerated
For some kids and teens with type 2 diabetes, taking diabetes pills or tablets
(oral medicines) is an important part of keeping blood sugar levels under control.
These diabetes medicines, along with a healthy diet and regular exercise, can help
the body make more insulin or use the insulin it does make more effectively. (These
medicines are not helpful for people with type 1 diabetes because their bodies have
lost the ability to make insulin.)
Blood sugar levels in kids with type 2 diabetes can sometimes be controlled with
pills (in combination with diet and exercise) that help the child's insulin work normally
again. But some kids with type 2 will also need insulin to help keep their blood glucose
Diabetes pills are not a form of insulin. They help the body make more insulin
or use insulin more effectively. This helps reduce the amount of glucose in the bloodstream
between meals and at night, which helps keep blood sugar levels under control. Diabetes
pills can also help with weight loss and help improve cholesterol
and triglyceride levels, which tend to be abnormal in people with type 2 diabetes.
Common side effects of diabetes pills include loss of appetite, taste changes,
abdominal pain, and nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Most of these are temporary, and
they will lessen or disappear after a few weeks as the person continues to take the
medicine. Stomach upset is also less likely to happen if the drug is taken with food.
In adults, a rare side effect of taking diabetes pills is lactic acidosis, a very
serious condition caused by a buildup of lactic acid in the blood. Lactic acidosis
can cause symptoms like rapid breathing, muscle pain, cool and clammy skin, sweet-smelling
breath, nausea, and vomiting. This problem has mostly happened in elderly people who
have other medical problems in addition to their diabetes.
It's unclear whether this rare side effect poses a risk for otherwise healthy kids
with diabetes taking the drug, but until this is known, the precautions recommended
for adults should be followed. Because in adults lactic acidosis is more likely to
happen when a person is ill, diabetes pills should be stopped when your child is sick
or has the flu.
Also, lactic acidosis can be triggered in people who take diabetes pills and drink
alcohol, so make sure your child understands that mixing alcohol and diabetes pills
can be dangerous.
If your child has any side effects while taking diabetes pills, tell your doctor
or diabetes health care team.
Kids and teens with diabetes can have extremely low blood sugar levels that
can make them become confused or have seizures or loss of consciousness. In these
cases, they need a medicine called glucagon.
Glucagon, a hormone given as an injection, raises blood sugar levels quickly (usually
within 10 to 15 minutes).
Make sure that adult family members, school staff, and other caregivers have access
to glucagon and know how and when to give it to your child. Anyone responsible for
watching your child should also know when to call 911 for hypoglycemia emergencies.
Taking diabetes medicines as prescribed is very important, and kids and teens who
do so can significantly reduce their risk of diabetes problems. If you have questions
about diabetes medicines, talk to your doctor or the diabetes health care team.