You may not think about insulin until you need it. If you or someone you love suffers from diabetes, you may have heard of NPH insulin. But what is it? Is it safe? And how can it affect your body?
The good news is, NPH insulin is safe for diabetes patients to take at the direction of their healthcare professionals, and most people have no side effects at all. However, there are some side effects that can take a severe toll on the body. Here we explain how insulin works and what kinds of symptoms you may experience if you do have side effects.
What Is NPH Insulin?
NPH insulin is the generic name for a type of insulin used to regulate blood sugar in patients with Type 1, Type 2, and gestational diabetes. As an intermediate-acting insulin, NPH insulin starts to work more slowly than regular insulin, but it also lasts longer. Since it starts to work more slowly, it may also be used in conjunction with a faster acting insulin for maximum effectiveness.
What Is Insulin?
Insulin is a hormone naturally produced by the body to regulate blood sugar. It is also available in manufactured form for medicinal uses and is commonly used by diabetes patients to keep their blood sugar within healthy ranges. Insulin works by helping blood sugar (glucose) get into cells so that your body can use the sugar for energy. If your body does not produce enough insulin on its own, you may be diabetic and require medical insulin to keep your blood sugar at normal levels.
There are four basic types of insulin available: fast-acting, short-acting, intermediate-acting, and long-acting. Fast-acting insulin begins to work within five to fifteen minutes and remains active in the body for three to four hours. Short-acting insulin begins working within 30 minutes and is active for five to eight hours.Intermediate-acting insulin begins working within one to three hours and remains active for 16 to 24 hours. NPH insulin is a form of intermediate-acting insulin. Long-acting insulin begins working within one to two hours of administration and continues to work in the body for about 24 hours.
Who Needs NPH Insulin?
Diabetes patients who suffer from Type 1, Type 2, and gestational diabetes can benefit from NPH insulin. Controlling blood sugar levels helps prevent kidney and nerve damage, blindness, and loss of limbs. Proper treatment of diabetes may also lessen the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
If you have been prescribed insulin, you should take exactly what your doctor prescribed in the manner instructed. Do not change brands or types of insulin without direction from your doctor. If you have any questions regarding your dosing and insulin schedule, you should ask your healthcare professional.
How much insulin you take is determined by your individual medical condition and how your body responds. You should measure your insulin carefully because even small changes in the amount of insulin you use can have a great effect on your blood sugar.
Insulin is usually administered by injection, whether subcutaneous (just under the skin) or into a muscle or vein. Some patients use single-use syringes with needles to take their insulin, but others use repeated-use insulin pens. NPH insulin is specifically available in disposable pre-filled syringes. Never share syringes or insulin pens with other people, even if the needle has been changed, to avoid the risk of a dangerous infection.
When taking insulin, you often take doses around a schedule intended to mimic the body’s natural secretion of the hormone, usually around mealtimes. NPH insulin is usually taken twice a day and may be injected in the stomach, the thigh, the buttocks, or the back of the upper arm.
NPH insulin may only be mixed with certain other types of insulin. You should consult your healthcare professional about what products you can mix, the proper method to mix insulin, and the proper method of injection. You should never inject a mixture of insulins directly into a vein, and do not mix insulins if you are using an insulin pump.
Check Your Blood Sugar
If you are taking insulin, you should check your blood sugar regularly as directed by your doctor. Keeping track of your blood sugar levels and sharing them with your healthcare professional is important to help determine the correct insulin dose for you. It is also important to remember that NPH insulin is most effective when taken regularly. To help you remember to take your regular doses, it may help if you take it at the same time every day.
What Are the Side Effects of NPH Insulin?
Nearly every drug on the market has potential side effects, and NPH insulin is no exception. Most of the time, side effects are mild and pose no threat to your health. Sometimes, however, your body may react negatively to a medication and your doctor should be notified immediately.
You may experience mild reactions at the injection site, such as pain, redness, or irritation. This is a normal reaction and is normally not life-threatening. However, if these symptoms persist or get worse, you should call your doctor. You may also experience weight gain or water retention in some cases. There are some side effects of NPH insulin that can be dangerous if not treated quickly.
A serious allergic reaction to NPH insulin is rare but can occasionally happen. If you experience the symptoms of an allergic reaction, call your healthcare provider and get medical help immediately. Symptoms may include a rash or hives; itching; red, swollen, or blistered skin; wheezing; tightness in the chest or throat; trouble breathing, swallowing, or talking; swelling of the mouth, face, lips, tongue, or throat. Anaphylaxis is serious, and must be treated accordingly.
Low Blood Sugar (Hypoglycemia)
Low blood sugar can occur if you do not eat enough calories or if you do some unusually heavy exercise. Signs of low blood sugar include dizziness; headache; feeling weak or sleepy; rapid heartbeat; hunger; confusion; sweating or shaking; or tingling hands or feet. If you experience the symptoms of low blood sugar (also known as hypoglycemia), call your healthcare provider. They should give you instructions on how to handle low blood sugar in an emergency, including taking liquid glucose, fruit juice, or glucose tablets.
To help prevent low blood sugar, make sure you eat on a regular schedule and don’t skip meals. Keep supplies on hand such as glucose gel or tablets, fruit juice or non-diet soda to raise your blood sugar in an emergency.
High Blood Sugar (Hyperglycemia)
Because NPH insulin affects your blood sugar, you may also experience symptoms of high blood sugar if your dosage is incorrect. Symptoms of high blood sugar include thirst, confusion, drowsiness, rapid breathing, and increased need to urinate. You may notice a fruity odor to your breath. If you experience these symptoms, tell your doctor right away—you may need to increase your insulin dosage.
Other serious side effects that may require medical assistance include:
If you experience any of these side effects, contact your doctor or healthcare professional immediately. They may be signs of an adverse reaction to the insulin or of a serious underlying condition.
Before taking any medication, tell your doctor your medical history, especially if you have a history of kidney or liver disease or thyroid problems. You should also tell your doctor all the medications you are currently taking, including prescription drugs, nonprescription drugs (over-the-counter) and any herbal or vitamin supplements. Limit alcohol intake when using NPH insulin, because it can increase your risk of developing low blood sugar.
It may be harder to control your blood sugar when your body is under extra stress, such as from infection, injury, or surgery. You should consult your doctor when this occurs because it may require a change in your treatment or blood sugar testing. Older adults and children may be more sensitive to side effects of NPH insulin, especially low blood sugar.
If you are pregnant, tell your doctor right away. Pregnancy may worsen existing diabetes, but some women also develop diabetes during pregnancy. If this is the case, discuss your diabetes treatment with your doctor and develop a plan to manage your blood sugar. NPH insulin may pass into the breast milk, but is unlikely to harm a nursing baby. Consult with your doctor before breast-feeding because this may affect your insulin needs.
When your doctor prescribes medicine for you, it is because they have weighed the benefits and the risks and have determined that the benefit to you is greater than the risk of side effects. Most people do not have serious side effects from taking insulin.
You should always take NPH insulin as directed by your doctor and check your blood sugar regularly to make sure that your body is responding properly. If you experience any symptoms of hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia, tell your doctor so that you can work together to adjust your dosage and get the best results. If you have any questions about your medications, or think you are suffering from side effects, tell your doctor.