Hypoglycemia and low blood sugar Symptoms & Causes

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What is hypoglycemia?

Hypoglycemia is the state of having a blood glucose (also known as blood sugar) level that is too low to effectively fuel the body's cells.

What is glucose?

Glucose is a sugar that’s derived from the breakdown of carbohydrates found in foods, and the main source of fuel for the body (including the brain). It may be stored in the liver and muscles for later use, but excess glucose is converted to fat. The level of glucose in the blood is regulated by complex hormonal and neurologic mechanisms.

What is a healthy range of blood glucose?

The normal range of blood glucose throughout the day and night is approximately 70 to 150 mg/dl (milligrams of glucose per deciliter of blood). However, this varies according to a number of factors; your child’s doctor will talk with you about what should be a normal range for him.

Why is hypoglycemia a concern?

The brain depends on glucose, and too little can impair its ability to function. Severe or prolonged hypoglycemia could result in seizures and serious brain injury.

Causes

The vast majority of episodes of hypoglycemia in children and adolescents occur when a child with diabetes takes too much insulin and/or eats too little or exercises strenuously or for a prolonged period of time.

For young children who do not have diabetes, hypoglycemia may be caused by:

Single episodes:

  • Stomach flu, or another illness that may cause them to not eat enough
  • fasting for a prolonged period of time
  • prolonged strenuous exercise and lack of food

Recurrent episodes:

  • accelerated starvation, also known as “ketotic hypoglycemia”
  • medications your child may be taking
  •  a congenital (present at birth) error in metabolism or unusual disorder such as hypopituitarism or hyperinsulinism.

Other causes of hypoglycemia in children are rare.

What is accelerated starvation?

While accelerated starvation has a serious-sounding name, it simply refers to a tendency for children without diabetes or any other known cause of hypoglycemia to experience repeated hypoglycemic episodes.

Accelerated starvation usually first appears when a child is between 18 months and 5 years old. Children with accelerated starvation are more likely than others to experience hypoglycemia during illness, after having fasted (overnight, for example) and after strenuous exercise. They may be small and thin for their age, and have less muscle mass than their peers.

Treatment for accelerated starvation is simply making sure that your child avoids prolonged periods of fasting. Give him frequent, small meals and snacks, especially before bedtime and whenever the child has not eaten a heart supper. The condition usually disappears on its own by the time the child is 8 or 9 years old.

Symptoms of hypoglycemia in children

While each child may experience symptoms of hypoglycemia differently, the most common include:

  • shakiness
  • dizziness
  • sweating
  • hunger
  • headache
  • irritability
  • pale skin color
  • sudden moodiness or behavior changes, such as crying for no apparent reason
  • clumsy or jerky movements
  • difficulty paying attention, or confusion
  • tingling sensations around the mouth

FAQ

Q: Will my child be okay?

A: Most likely yes. Hypoglycemia is serious, but usually not life-threatening.

Q: How could hypoglycemia affect my child’s health?

A: The brain depends on glucose, and too little can impair its ability to function. Severe or prolonged hypoglycemia could result in seizures and permanent brain injury.

Q: What causes hypoglycemia?

A: Most episodes of hypoglycemia in children and adolescents occur when a child with diabetes takes too much insulin and/or eats too little.

For children who do not have diabetes, hypoglycemia may be caused by:

Single episodes:

  • stomach flu, or another illness that may cause them to not eat enough
  • fasting for a prolonged period of time
  • prolonged strenuous exercise and lack of food

Recurrent episodes:

  • accelerated starvation, also known as “ketotic hypoglycemia”
  • medications your child may be taking
  • a congenital (present at birth) error in metabolism or unusual disorder such as hypopituitarism or hyperinsulinism.

Q: How long will it take my child to recover from hypoglycemia?

A: This depends entirely on the severity of the episode. If your child’s hypoglycemia is not severe, he should feel better within 10 to 15 minutes of eating or drinking something.

Q: Can hypoglycemia be prevented?

A: This depends on the cause, but many episodes of hypoglycemia can be prevented by making sure your child eats frequent meals and snacks throughout the day and has something to eat before going to bed. If your child eats little at dinner, a hearty snack before bedtime (such as a glass of milk and peanut butter on toast) will keep his blood sugar levels stable throughout the night.

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