Hyperglycemia means blood sugar is abnormally high and may need treatment. Although it’s the main symptom of diabetes, hyperglycemia can have other causes, too.
The glucose level in your blood, also called blood sugar, results from the food you eat and the ability of the hormone insulin to regulate blood sugar. Produced by the pancreas, insulin normally moves glucose into cells to create energy for your body to function effectively.
But if your pancreas doesn’t make adequate insulin, or your body can’t use the insulin that is produced in the right way, blood sugar can rise. The result is abnormally high glucose levels, a condition called hyperglycemia.
You likely know that diabetes is associated with high blood sugar. But there are other health conditions that can result in chronic or temporary hyperglycemia.
Understanding what hyperglycemia is and the importance of knowing if your blood sugar is too high go far in protecting your health.
Here’s what causes hyperglycemia
Diabetes is an important cause of high blood sugar, although not the only one.
If you have type 1 diabetes, hyperglycemia results because your pancreas doesn’t make any insulin or makes very little, meaning blood sugar can’t move into your cells. Instead, it builds up in your bloodstream. Without adequate insulin, hyperglycemia can damage your body and even result in death.
Most people with type1diabetes are diagnosed as children, adolescents, or young adults, but it can develop at any age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The disease needs ongoing treatment with insulin to keep blood sugar at a healthy level.
About percent of people with diabetes have type 1, an autoimmune disease. Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, is primarily a disease of lifestyle (being overweight and lack of exercise are often important factors). With type 2 diabetes, your pancreas still produces insulin, but your body doesn’t use insulin normally, resulting in blood sugar levels that are too high.
Unlike type 1 diabetes, you can often manage type 2 diabetes with weight loss, regular exercise, and a healthy diet. Some people will need medication, including insulin or other prescription drugs, if lifestyle changes aren’t enough to bring their blood sugar to a healthy level.
Gestational diabetes is another cause of high blood sugar. It can develop during pregnancy and usually disappears after you give birth. Hormone changes while you are expecting normally cause a small elevation in blood sugar, but about 7 percent of pregnant women develop significant hyperglycemia in late pregnancy. If gestational diabetes is not treated adequately, high blood sugar can result in preeclampsia, a dangerous condition that causes blood pressure to soar. Preeclampsia can damage organ systems and result in preterm births and health complications for the baby and mom.
All types of diabetes require checking your blood sugar levels regularly. If blood sugar levels are high, contact your doctor, especially if you experience hyperglycemia symptoms, including:
- Unusual thirst and frequent urination
- Stomach pain
- Shortness of breath
- Fast heartbeat
- Nausea and vomiting
Non-diabetic causes of hyperglycemia
People who don’t have diabetes can sometimes develop transient hyperglycemia during a time of severe physical stress from an illness or surgery. Ongoing emotional trauma can also cause blood sugar to rise.
That’s because the hormones your body produce when you are under significant stress cause blood sugar levels to spike upwards. Usually, this type of hyperglycemia does not result in chronic elevated blood sugar once stress is relieved.
What’s more, for people who do have diabetes, a stressful situation may also cause their hyperglycemia to become more elevated, requiring a change in insulin or other medication.
In addition, more than a third of all Americans have prediabetes, when your blood sugar is not quite high enough to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, but close. The causes are typically being overweight and sedentary.
A related condition, metabolic syndrome, is also marked by high or borderline high blood sugar, along with high blood pressure, low levels of the “good” cholesterol known as low high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and high triglycerides, and excess fat around the middle (a “spare tire”).
Certain medications, especially steroids, can cause blood sugar levels to rise, too, while you are taking the drugs.
How do you know if you have hyperglycemia?
A simple blood test, usually performed as part of an annual check-up or at prenatal doctor appointments if you are pregnant, can show if your blood sugar level is above normal. Depending on your personal health history and current medical condition, your doctor may want to run a fasting blood sugar test, which requires not eating overnight. A normal range for blood sugar in these tests is 99 mg/dL or less. Higher levels may indicate hyperglycemia in the prediabetic or diabetic range and need further testing.
If you’ve had a higher-than-normal result on a simple blood glucose test, your doctor may order an A1C test for more information on your blood sugar levels over three months. The test, which uses a small sample of blood, is important for definitively diagnosing both diabetes and prediabetes. If you have diabetes, an AIC test can help you and your doctor keep track of your blood sugar levels over time to see how well your condition is being managed.
Here’s how it works: When sugar enters your blood, it attaches to a protein in your red blood cells called hemoglobin. This occurs normally; everyone has some glucose attached to their hemoglobin. People with hyperglycemia, however, have more than average levels. The A1C test measures the percentage of your red blood cells that have sugar-covered hemoglobin and can reveal whether your blood sugar is too high over about 12 weeks, the CDC explains.
Results below 5.7 percent on an A1C test are normal, prediabetes levels are in the 5.7 to 6.4 percent range, and results 6.5 percent and above indicate diabetes.
February 17, 2023
Janet O’Dell, RN