Hypoglycemia (Low Blood Sugar) in People Without Diabetes

Condition Basics

What is low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) in people who don't have diabetes?

You may have briefly felt the effects of low blood sugar when you've gotten really hungry or exercised hard without eating enough. This happens to nearly everyone from time to time. It's easy to correct and usually is nothing to worry about.

But low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, can also be an ongoing problem. It occurs when the level of sugar in your blood drops too low to give your body energy.

What causes it?

Ongoing problems with low blood sugar can be caused by:

  • Medicines.
  • Diseases of the liver, kidneys, or pancreas.
  • Metabolic problems.
  • Alcohol use.
  • Stomach surgery.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms can be different depending on how low your blood sugar level drops. For example:

  • Mild low blood sugar can make you feel hungry or like you want to vomit. You could also feel jittery or nervous. Your heart may beat fast. You may sweat. Or your skin might turn cold and clammy.
  • Moderate low blood sugar often makes people feel short-tempered, nervous, afraid, or confused. Your vision may blur. You could also feel unsteady or have trouble walking.
  • Severe low blood sugar can cause you to pass out. You could have seizures. It could even cause a coma or death.

If you've had low blood sugar during the night, you may wake up tired or with a headache. And you may have nightmares. Or you may sweat so much during the night that your pajamas or sheets are damp when you wake up.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask you questions about your health and any medicines you take. You will need blood tests to check your blood sugar levels. Some tests might include not eating (fasting) and watching for symptoms. Other tests might involve eating a meal that could cause symptoms of low blood sugar several hours later. The results of these types of tests can help diagnose the cause.

You may also need tests to look for or rule out health problems that could be affecting your blood sugar levels.

How is low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) treated in people who don't have diabetes?

You can treat a sudden episode of low blood sugar by eating or drinking something with sugar in it. Some examples of "quick-sugar foods" are fruit juice, regular (not diet) soda, and hard candy. You may also take glucose tablets. This is usually all that's needed to get your blood sugar level back up in the short term.

If your low blood sugar is caused by a health condition, you may need treatment for that condition. There also may be steps you can take to avoid low blood sugar. For example, talk to your doctor about whether changes in your diet, medicines, or exercise habits might help.

If you have a health problem that tends to cause low blood sugar, it's a good idea to teach your family, friends, and coworkers about what symptoms to watch for and what to do. You may also want to wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness), or you suddenly become very sleepy or confused. (You may have very low blood sugar.)

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have symptoms of low blood sugar, such as:
    • Sweating.
    • Feeling nervous, shaky, and weak.
    • Extreme hunger and slight nausea.
    • Dizziness and headache.
    • Blurred vision.
    • Confusion.

Credits

Current as of: February 28, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board: All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

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