Diabetic Seizure: What Happens, Why, and What to Do

Medically Reviewed By Kelly Wood, MD
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Diabetic seizure is a term used for seizures related to blood sugar levels. When you have extremely low or high blood sugar levels, you may experience severe symptoms, such as confusion, shock, loss of consciousness, and seizure. Diabetic seizures can be fatal. However, emergency medical care can offer relief. Also, taking steps to control your blood sugar level can help prevent a diabetic seizure.

Read on to learn more about diabetic seizures, their causes, symptoms, and prevention. This article also discusses what happens to your body during a diabetic seizure and what to do when you experience one. 

What can cause diabetic seizures?

A woman performing a glucose test on her finger
Clique Images/Stocksy United (person appearing is a model and used for illustrative purposes only)

Untreated hyperglycemia (high blood sugar levels) can affect the nervous system, leading to neurological symptoms such as epileptic seizures. People with hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels) can also experience seizures. However, this is rare and not as common as doctors and other medical experts once thought. 

Aside from hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia, some hypotheses suggest that other factors can contribute to diabetic seizures, including:

  • local brain damage
  • immune system abnormalities
  • metabolic factors
  • microvascular brain lesions
  • gene mutations

Hypoglycemia-induced seizure

Severe hypoglycemia is one of the causes of seizures in people with diabetes. This commonly occurs following excess administration of insulin

Because the brain needs glucose to work properly, insufficient glucose in the blood will impair its ability to function. Severe or chronic hypoglycemia can lead to seizures, coma, and even death.

Hyperglycemia-induced seizure

Two types of hyperglycemia can cause diabetic seizures:

  • Ketotic hyperglycemia: Ketotic hyperglycemia, also called diabetic ketoacidosis, is a severe complication of diabetes that occurs when the body produces excess ketones. It is common in people with type 1 diabetes. When there is insufficient insulin in the body, it cannot produce enough insulin to keep glucose levels at a typical level. Instead of entering the cells, the glucose remains in the bloodstream. The body cannot utilize glucose in the blood for energy, so it starts burning fats, releasing ketones into the blood. Accumulation of ketones in the blood turns the blood acidic and poisonous. This also increases the risk of seizures.
  • Non-ketotic hyperglycemia (NKH): Non-ketotic hyperglycemia is also called hyperosmolar hyperglycemic syndrome (HHS). It is common in people with type 2 diabetes, and its characteristics include extremely high glucose levels with or without the presence of ketones. In this case, the kidneys try to regulate blood glucose by allowing extra glucose to leave the body via urine. However, this results in the body losing water while retaining high concentrations of salt, glucose, and other substances. Although NKH is clinically rare, it significantly affects neurological outcomes, and its initial symptoms are seizures. 

If ketones are present in NKH, they are minimal. This differentiates it from ketotic hyperglycemia, which involves high ketone levels.

What are the symptoms of a diabetic seizure?

Several symptoms of seizures might occur before and during the seizure itself.

Before the seizure

Signs and symptoms of seizures range from mild to severe. Symptoms you may experience before the seizure takes place include:

During the seizure

A seizure episode can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes, mostly less than 5 minutes. During an episode, a person may experience the following signs and symptoms:

  • uncontrollable muscle spasms
  • drooling
  • loss of consciousness and confusion
  • falling
  • teeth clenching
  • tongue biting
  • rapid eye movements
  • loss of bowel or bladder control

Learn about different types of seizures here.

What happens to your body? 

Significant changes in blood sugar, whether they become extremely high or extremely low, can affect the excitability of nerve cells, increasing the risk of seizures.

Seizures happen due to chemical changes that affect how nerve cells interact with each other, causing sudden electrical activity in the brain. All types of seizures share similar symptoms and often follow the same pattern.

Learn more effects of diabetes on the body here.

What to do in the event of a seizure

Seeing someone you are with experiencing a seizure can be a stressful experience. However, it is important not to panic. To help the person go through the seizure episode, take the following steps:

  • Remove objects around them that might cause injury.
  • Loosen any tight clothing that might restrict their breathing.
  • Lay them on their side in a recovery position to help them breathe easily and to keep their airways clear.
  • Do not put anything into their mouth.

Learn about safety tips during an epileptic seizure here.

When to call 911

Call 911 if the person:

  • has not had a seizure before
  • has hurt themselves
  • has multiple seizures, one after the other
  • has difficulty breathing or walking afterward
  • is in water
  • has been having the seizure longer than 5 minutes
  • has diabetes, heart disease, or is pregnant

Learn what to do if blood sugar spikes here.

What happens after a diabetic seizure? 

The period following a seizure is called the postictal period. People’s experiences during this period vary depending on the severity and length of the seizure. However, most people may not recall what just happened.

Many people may also feel sleepy and tired and have body aches and headaches after a diabetic seizure.

It is advisable to seek medical attention after a diabetic seizure. 

How can you prevent diabetic seizures?

People with diabetes need to pay attention to their bodies and work with their healthcare team to ensure their blood glucose level is always within the typical range. Healthcare professionals can help you to understand how to manage low or high blood sugar levels to avoid accidental overcorrection of blood sugar levels. 

Things you can do to prevent diabetic seizures include:

  • monitoring your blood sugar levels regularly
  • taking your medications as prescribed
  • injecting the right amount of insulin
  • limiting alcohol consumption
  • eating nutritious, balanced meals that will not cause your blood glucose level to spike
  • eating at intervals to maintain sugar levels
  • exercising regularly

Learn more tips to monitor your blood sugar here.

According to an older 2013 study, about 25% of people with diabetes will experience different types of seizures. More recent studies also indicate that type 1 and 2 diabetes and severe hypoglycemia are independent risk factors for epilepsy, a neurological condition that causes recurrent seizures

Summary

People with type 1 or type 2 diabetes may experience seizures due to high blood sugar spikes or, less commonly, low blood sugar levels.

There is currently no cure for diabetes. However, with lifestyle and dietary management and following your doctor’s instructions, you can keep your blood sugar level within the typical range and reduce the risk of complications, such as a diabetic seizure. 

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Medical Reviewer: Kelly Wood, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Oct 29
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.