As part of my Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT) rotation, my preceptor has asked me to create a summary sheet of certain illnesses and complications associated with various disease states. One of which, is diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA).
What is DKA?
DKA is a serious complication of diabetes that occurs when your body produces high levels of blood acids called ketones.
It develops when your body is unable to produce enough insulin. Insulin normally plays a key role in helping sugar (glucose) — a major source of energy for your muscles and other tissues — enter your cells. Without enough insulin, your body begins to break down fat as an alternate fuel. This process produces a buildup of toxic acids in the bloodstream called ketones, eventually leading to diabetic ketoacidosis if untreated.
What causes DKA?
1. Not enough insulin
2. Not enough food
3. Low blood glucose
When cells don’t get the glucose they need for energy, your body begins to burn fat for energy, which produces ketones. Ketones are acids that build up in the blood and appear in the urine when your body doesn’t have enough insulin. They are a warning sign that your diabetes is out of control or that you are getting sick. High levels of ketones can poison the body. When levels get too high, you can develop DKA. DKA may happen to anyone with diabetes, though it is rare in people with type 2. Treatment for DKA usually takes place in the hospital. But you can help prevent it by learning the warning signs and checking your urine and blood regularly. DKA usually develops slowly. But when vomiting occurs, this is life-threatening and can develop in a few hours.
Sugar is a main source of energy for the cells that make up your muscles and other tissues. Normally, sugar enters your cells with the help of insulin. If you don’t have enough insulin in your body, your body won’t be able to use sugar properly for energy. This prompts the release of hormones that break down fat as an alternate fuel. In turn, this process produces toxic acids known as ketones. Excess ketones accumulate in the blood and eventually “spill over” into the urine.
Early symptoms include:
– Polydypsia (increase of thirst)
– Polyuria (frequent urination)
– Hyperglycemia (high blood glucose levels)
– High level of ketones in the urine
– Fatigue, dry skin, nausea, difficulty breathing, fruity odor on the breath (caused from the presence of ketones)
When diagnosing DKA, a healthcare provider should pay close attention to the following lab values:
– Blood Glucose: If there isn’t enough insulin in your body to allow sugar to enter your cells, your blood sugar level will rise (hyperglycemia). As your body breaks down fat and protein for energy, your blood sugar level will continue to rise.
– Ketone level: When your body breaks down fat and protein for energy, toxic acids known as ketones enter your bloodstream.
– Blood acidity: If you have excess ketones in your blood, your blood will become acidic (acidosis). This can alter the normal function of various organs throughout your body.
– Blood electrolyte tests, Urinalysis, Chest X-ray, and an Electrocardiogram (ECG)
The treatment for DKA involves a three-pronged approach:
1. Fluid Replacement: receive fluids, orally or intravenously, until rehydrated. These fluids will replace those that have been lost through excessive urination and dilute the excess sugar in the blood.
2. Electrolyte Replacement: Electrolytes are minerals in your blood that carry an electric charge, such as sodium, potassium and chloride. The absence of insulin can lower the level of several electrolytes in your blood. You’ll receive electrolytes through your veins to help keep your heart, muscles and nerve cells functioning normally.
3. Insulin Therapy: Insulin reverses the processes that cause diabetic ketoacidosis. Along with fluids and electrolytes, you’ll receive insulin therapy — usually through a vein. When your blood sugar level falls below 240 mg/dL (13.3 mmol/L) and your blood is no longer acidic, you may be able to stop intravenous insulin therapy and resume your normal subcutaneous insulin therapy.
Diabetic ketoacidosis is usually triggered by an illness or insulin therapy.
An infection or other illness can cause your body to produce higher levels of certain hormones, such as adrenaline or cortisol. Unfortunately, these hormones work against insulin — sometimes triggering an episode of diabetic ketoacidosis. Pneumonia and urinary tract infections are common culprits.
Missed insulin treatments or inadequate insulin therapy can leave you with too little insulin in your system, triggering an episode of diabetic ketoacidosis.
Other possible triggers of DKA could include:
– Physical or emotional stress
– High fever
– Heart attack
– Alcohol or drug abuse, specifically cocaine
While DKA is being treated, there are complications that patients and healthcare providers need to be aware of as well. Complications could include:
– Hypoglycemia: Insulin allows sugar to enter your cells. This causes your blood sugar level to drop. If your blood sugar level drops too quickly, you may develop low blood sugar.
– Hypokalemia: Fluids and insulin used to treat diabetic ketoacidosis may cause your potassium level to drop too low. A low potassium level can impair the activities of your heart, muscles and nerves.
– Cerebral Edema: Adjusting your blood sugar level too quickly can produce swelling in your brain. This complication appears to be more common in children, especially those with newly diagnosed diabetes.