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Diabetes First Aid: How To Manage The Silent Illness

Diabetes is the epidemic of the 21st century and one of the biggest challenges confronting Australia’s health system. Around 1.8 million Australians have diabetes, this includes all types of diagnosed diabetes (1.2 million known and registered) as well as silent, undiagnosed type 2 diabetes (approximately 500,000). Currently, 280 Australians develop diabetes every day. That is one person every 5 minutes.

Globally, the statistics are alarming, and it is estimated by 2040 one in ten adults will have diabetes (642 million).

Diabetes is an around the clock illness which has primary and secondary effects on its sufferers and those around them. For every person diagnosed with diabetes there is usually a family member or carer who also ‘lives with diabetes’ every day to support. This means an estimated 2.5 million Australians are affected by diabetes every day.

There is little known about what causes diabetes, but it is suggested that genetics, excess weight and a lack of physical activity may play a key role in the development of the disease. Uncontrolled diabetes can quickly become a medical emergency where casualties can even slip into a coma. With the increase in those suffering from diabetes, there is a growing possibility the First Aider may encounter a diabetic emergency, so it is time we talk about the disease and understand its impact on the lives of those around us.

Follow our guide on diabetes, the consequence of the illness and how to provide First Aid in a diabetic emergency.

The Statistics

The diabetic epidemic is no secret; most people know someone suffering from the disease, but just how many people does this illness affect and what does it mean for the wider community?

What Is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a consequence of a disorder of the pancreas. In simple terms, as part of the digestive process when food is consumed the body works to break it down into sugars which are then absorbed into the bloodstream and converted into energy. In diabetes, the production and function of insulin is compromised. This creates a build-up of sugars in the blood and cells don’t receive the energy they require.

*Insulin is a hormone that your body needs to let sugar (glucose) into your cells to produce energy

Different Types Of Diabetes

There are three main types of diabetes; type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes. Each type has a serious impact on bodily functions and has significantly different signs and symptoms. Here’s how the three types compare:


Type 1

Type 2



Childhood, adolescence

Sometimes in adulthood

Adults (in particular 45 and above)

During pregnancy

Signs & symptoms

Incessant thirst and hunger pangs, frequent need to urinate, unexplained loss of weight, fatigue, blurred vision

Mild feelings of thirst and hunger, frequent need to urinate, fatigue, blurred vision, tingling and numbness in the hands or feet

No noticeable signs or symptoms

Rarely an increase in thirst or urination may be noticeable

Short-term risks





Delivery of the baby may be complicated

Baby is at risk of developing low blood glucose (hypoglycaemia) immediately after birth

First Aid for a Diabetic Emergency

First Aid treatment for all three types of Diabetes is the same. See below for more details on First Aid for hypoglycaemia and hyperglycaemia

Long-term risks

Eye disease

Nerve damage

Kidney disease

Heart disease and stroke

Gum disease

Eye disease

Heart disease and stroke

Sleep apnoea

Hearing loss

Kidney disease

Nerve damage and lower limb complications

If left untreated the baby is at a higher risk of breathing problems, obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life

Developing type 2 diabetes after the pregnancy

Long-term treatment

Insulin therapy

Monitoring of blood glucose levels with diet, exercise and medication when necessary (insulin therapy)

Diet maintenance and nutritional adjustment, regular exercise

Insulin therapy (rare)

Type 1 diabetes represents around 10 per cent of all cases of diabetes and is one of the most common chronic childhood conditions. Learn how to manage a child with type 1 diabetes.


The Differences Between Hypoglycaemia And Hyperglycaemia





Hypoglycaemia* is when your blood glucose (blood sugar) levels begin to drop. It is the more common and dangerous type of diabetic emergency.

Hyperglycaemia* is when your blood glucose level starts to climb.

Signs and symptoms

Rapid heartbeat
Whiteness of skin
Numbness in fingers, toes, and lips
Slurred speech

Excessive thirst
Trouble concentrating
Blurred vision
Frequent urination
Shortness of breath
Dry mouth
Abdominal pain

Diabetes First Aid for an Emergency

People often assume someone with hypoglycaemia is intoxicated, as the symptoms can be similar. When in fact they may be close to slipping in to a coma, so always check for diabetes bracelets or tags and even try asking them. Even if there is alcohol on their breath, they could still be suffering from an episode, and alcohol can make a diabetic more prone to having hypoglycaemia.

If a casualty is unconscious:

  1. Follow DRSABCD
  2. Call triple zero (000) for medical assistance

If a casualty is conscious and signs suggest low blood sugar:

  1. Give them sugary drinks or foods in 15 minute intervals until they recover or medical assistance arrives
  2. Seek medical assistance if required

If casualty is conscious and signs suggest high blood sugar:

  1. Seek medical assistance
  2. Give them sugar-free fluids to drink if help is delayed

Note: if you are unsure whether the casualty is suffering from low or high blood sugar, give them a sugary drink. Consuming a sugary drink will not have an immediate negative impact if the casualty is in fact suffering from high blood sugar.

Often, those suffering may refuse your help due to their impaired mental state, particularly with hypoglycaemia. If this is the case, persist as much as you are able to by offering them a sugary drink and monitoring the response. Do not give diet type drinks, as these don’t contain the much needed sugar.

As one of the fastest growing diseases in the world it is critical that the community understands the ramifications of this life-changing disease. It’s important that people are aware of the risk factors for diabetes and what they can do to prevent or delay the onset of the illness.

There are a range of resources available for people at risk and those who have been diagnosed to rely on to help them through their unique diabetic journey. If you or someone you know is at risk of diabetes, visit your GP to discuss the illness further.

With increased awareness, resources and accessibility to information and treatment, the community as a whole can recognise and combat a diabetic emergency to save more lives.

Bitesize Diabetes, Seizures, Hyperventilation and Fainting
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