What Is DKA? - Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Rachel Torrens
Diabetic ketoacidosis is a life threatening condition for patients with diabetes. Learn the trigger for, the symptoms of, and the treatment for this terrifying condition in this lesson.

What Is Diabetic Ketoacidosis?

Everything that goes needs fuel. Your car needs gas, your laptop needs a battery, and you need food! When we eat food, not only are we enjoying something yummy, but we are fueling our body for all the thousands of tasks it is asked to do. We ingest whole food, and our digestive system breaks it down into different components - sugars, fats, proteins - that can be used as fuel.

One of the most common types of fuel our bodies use is glucose (a sugar). Now, once the body has broken down the food into glucose, a hormone named insulin helps get the glucose from the bloodstream into the cells. Just like the hose and nozzle at the gas pump help you get gasoline into the tank of your car. Think if you pulled up to a gas station and there was no hose or nozzle; could you get gas? Of course not! And the same is true in our bodies. If there is no insulin, then the glucose is unable to enter the cells to be used as fuel.

When the body lacks insulin, like in type 1 diabetes, it cannot use glucose as a fuel. So, it must use something else instead. The glucose is left in the bloodstream, and the body begins to breakdown fats. A byproduct of fat breakdown is ketones. Ketones are highly acidic. As the body continues to breakdown fats, the level of ketones continues to rise making the person's blood highly acidic. This leads to a condition known as diabetic ketoacidosis, commonly abbreviated as DKA.

Symptoms of Diabetic Ketoacidosis

The symptoms of DKA can be subtle and develop gradually over 24 hours or they can occur much more quickly if a patient is already suffering from another ailment.

The most common symptoms are:

  • Dry mouth
  • Excessive thirst
  • Increased urination
  • Fruity odor to the breath
  • Abdominal pain, Nausea or Vomiting
  • Muscle weakness
  • Decreased cognition
  • Rapid breathing

Symptoms noted with lab tests are:

  • High blood sugar levels
  • Significant ketones in the urine

DKA and its symptoms can be the first warning signs that a patient even has diabetes. Often it is this condition that prompts the diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes in children. Patients who already have been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes are at risk of developing DKA when they fail to administer their insulin as prescribed. Other reasons for developing DKA are battling an infection, sustaining a serious injury, or undergoing surgery.

Patients with Type 2 diabetes can also develop DKA, but this occurs much less frequently. Nevertheless, poorly managed sugar levels or severe illness can lead to DKA in these patients as well.

Treatments for Diabetic Ketoacidosis

The treatments for diabetic ketoacidosis revolve around making the patient's blood less acidic (or another way to think about it is 'less full of ketones'). This is usually accomplished with a couple components.

1.Fluids containing electrolytes are administered.

The fluid helps to dilute the amount of sugar in the bloodstream. The electrolytes allow this fluid to move in and out of other necessary tissues, diluting the sugar there as well. Why is this so important? Imagine that you are really thirsty, but instead of handing you a glass of water, someone hands you a glass of pancake syrup. How would you feel after drinking it? Definitely not refreshed and most likely sick. It is the same scenario with a patient suffering from DKA. Fluids with electrolytes are essential in rehydrating the patient.

2. Insulin is administered.

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