Children's Hospital Colorado

Hypoglycemia in Children

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What is hypoglycemia?

Hypoglycemia is also known as low blood sugar. It happens when a person's level of glucose gets too low. Glucose is sugar in the blood that comes from the food a person eats. Glucose is important because it’s the main source of fuel for the body's cells. While some body tissues can also use fat or protein for energy, the brain can only use glucose.

If a person's blood sugar level gets too low, they need immediate treatment to avoid the risk of seizure, unconsciousness or brain injury.

Hypoglycemia in children most often happens as a complication of diabetes. However, it can also happen in children without diabetes.

What causes hypoglycemia in children?

In children and adolescents with diabetes, hypoglycemia can occur if they take too much insulin. Insulin is the hormone that allows the body's cells to absorb glucose. Taking too much insulin makes blood sugar levels drop. We sometimes call this an insulin reaction. This can happen when children:

  • Take their insulin at the wrong time
  • Take the wrong kind of insulin
  • Incorrectly monitor their blood glucose level

Children and teens with diabetes can also experience hypoglycemia if they:

  • Miss or delay a meal, or eat too few carbohydrates
  • Exercise more than usual
  • Experience vomiting or diarrhea
  • Take a hot bath or shower after an insulin injection, causing it to absorb faster
  • Inject insulin into muscle rather than fat, causing it to absorb faster
  • Drink alcohol, which impairs the body's ability to use glucose
  • Take certain medicines
  • Have other health conditions

For children and adolescents without diabetes, hypoglycemia is uncommon, but it can happen if they:

  • Don't eat enough, particularly because of illness or fasting
  • Experience long-term starvation, which may occur with eating disorders
  • Drink alcohol, especially without food
  • Take certain medicines, especially if they have kidney failure
  • Have health conditions like hepatitis or kidney disorders
  • Have low levels of hormones because of problems with their pituitary or adrenal glands
  • Have a pancreatic tumor, which is rare

Who gets hypoglycemia?

Children with type 1 diabetes have the highest risk. Children with type 2 diabetes may also get hypoglycemia if they rely on insulin or other medicines to control their blood sugar.

Children without diabetes most often experience hypoglycemia by eating much less than they should because of illness or eating disorders.

Babies may also be at risk if they are born to mothers with diabetes or if they have other health complications. These include prematurity or an unusually small or large size for their gestational age.

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