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The Significance of High Levels of Ketones in Blood

written by: Jacquelyn Gilchrist•edited by: Emma Lloyd•updated: 6/24/2010

High levels of ketones in blood indicates poorly-controlled diabetes. It causes a serious condition, called ketoacidosis, which may result in diabetic complications, such as coma or even death.

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    What Are Ketones?

    Ketones are a type of chemical, or acid, that is produced in your body. Diabetes can cause the body to have problems properly using a cell's glucose for energy, so instead the body begins to use fat. This can occur when the body does not have enough insulin, and can result in the production of ketones. High levels of ketones in blood causes the blood to become more acidic, which results in a chemical imbalance.

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    Causes of High Ketone Levels

    The primary cause of high levels of ketones in blood is poor management of diabetes. However, there are three basic triggers that can result in this condition. Sometimes, skipping a meal or not eating while you are sick can cause high levels of ketones. Being sick also may make your body need more insulin than usual. When the body does not have enough insulin, it can produce ketones. The third main trigger behind high ketones is an insulin reaction, or low blood glucose. This often occurs while you sleep, resulting in high ketones when you wake up.

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    Should You Be Concerned?

    Diabetics should discuss the possibility of developing high ketones and ketoacidosis with their caregivers. It is a dangerous condition that requires prompt treatment under a doctor's care. If you are diabetic, learn the warning signs of ketoacidosis. Instruct family members or close friends on how to recognize these possible symptoms, so that you can get help immediately if it occurs.

    Even if you have not been diagnosed with diabetes, learning the warning signs could help save your life or the life of someone else. Many people live with diabetes, but have not been diagnosed yet, and so they may be unaware of the symptoms of this condition.

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    Warning Signs

    The initial symptoms of ketoacidosis may develop slowly. You may notice that you are unusually thirsty, or that you have a dry mouth despite consuming liquids. You will likely need to urinate frequently. If you test your blood, you will notice high blood sugar levels. Testing your urine will reveal high levels of ketones.

    Other symptoms of ketoacidosis develop as the condition becomes more dangerous. These symptoms indicate that you need medical help immediately. For example, if you begin vomiting, this indicates that ketoacidosis is developing rapidly and you may experience complications within a few hours. The vomiting may often be accompanied by nausea and abdominal pain. Other advanced symptoms may include flushed and dry skin, as well as persistent fatigue. You may be easily confused and have trouble paying attention and focusing. Your breathing may become labored, and you may notice that your breath smells fruity.

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    How to Test Your Ketones

    If you experience possible symptoms, test your ketone levels right away. In addition, you should always test your urine if, after testing your blood, you discover that your glucose is higher than 240 mg/dl. Continue to test at least every four to six hours. If you are sick, you should also test your ketone levels every four to six hours.

    To test your ketones, use a urine test strip. Immerse the reagent pad of the test strip into a glass container of your urine. (Ensure that the container is clean and dry before filling it.) Remove it immediately, position the strip horizontally, and wait. In approximately 15 seconds, the color on the strip will change. Compare the color with the color chart (available with the testing kit) to determine the approximate level of ketones.

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    What To Do

    If you have high levels of ketones, call your doctor immediately. Ketoacidosis typically requires treatment in a hospital. Your doctor will administer fluids and insulin. Just in case you are unable to make these arrangements for your care, always wear a medical identification bracelet with your medical condition and your doctor's name and phone number.