Hypoglycemia in type 1 diabetes mellitus: pathophysiology and prevention

Treat Endocrinol. 2004;3(2):91-103. doi: 10.2165/00024677-200403020-00004.


Spontaneous hypoglycemia is uncommon in the general (nondiabetic) population, but iatrogenic hypoglycemia is rife in patients with type 1 diabetes mellitus, among whom hypoglycemia constitutes a barrier to optimal glycemic control. The obligate dependence on exogenous insulin, together with the current imperfection in insulin therapies, generates degrees of blood glucose fluctuations that often exceed physiological boundaries in these patients. Downward swings in blood glucose levels, if sustained, result in hypoglycemia and significant morbidity and mortality. Hypoglycemia in type 1 diabetes indicates an imbalance between caloric supply and glucose use in response to insulin or exercise. Counterregulatory mechanisms that auto-correct iatrogenic hypoglycemia often become progressively impaired in these patients. This defective counterregulation, together with the imperfections in insulin delivery, set the stage for significant morbidity from iatrogenic hypoglycemia. Recurrent episodes of iatrogenic hypoglycemia induce a state of hypoglycemia unawareness and defective counterregulation, which defines the syndrome of hypoglycemia-associated autonomic failure (HAAF). The reduced awareness of, and counterregulatory responses to, hypoglycemia in patients with HAAF lead to worsening episodes of severe hypoglycemia. Approaches to the prevention of hypoglycemia include glucose monitoring, patient education, meal planning, and medication adjustment. In patients with HAAF, scrupulous avoidance of iatrogenic hypoglycemia may restore the symptomatic and counterregulatory responses to hypoglycemia. Behavioral training focusing on recognition of the more subtle symptoms and signs of evolving hypoglycemia may be beneficial to some patients with HAAF. A methodical search for the pattern and etiology of iatrogenic hypoglycemia is a prerequisite for the identification of the best preventive approach. With proper education, patients with type 1 diabetes and their physicians can learn to prevent or minimize the risk of hypoglycemia while pursuing excellence in glycemic control.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Awareness
  • Blood Glucose / analysis
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / complications*
  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Humans
  • Hypoglycemia / etiology
  • Hypoglycemia / physiopathology*
  • Hypoglycemia / prevention & control*
  • Insulin / adverse effects
  • Patient Education as Topic
  • Risk Factors
  • Xanthine / administration & dosage


  • Blood Glucose
  • Insulin
  • Xanthine