Diabetic ketoacidosis: risk factors and management strategies

Treat Endocrinol. 2003;2(2):95-108. doi: 10.2165/00024677-200302020-00003.


Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) is the most common hyperglycemic emergency in patients with diabetes mellitus. DKA most often occurs in patients with type 1 diabetes, but patients with type 2 diabetes are susceptible to DKA under stressful conditions, such as trauma, surgery, or infections. DKA is reported to be responsible for more than 100 000 hospital admissions per year in the US, and accounts for 4-9% of all hospital discharge summaries among patients with diabetes. Treatment of patients with DKA uses significant healthcare resources and accounts for 1 out of every 4 healthcare dollars spent on direct medical care for adult patients with type 1 diabetes in the US. Recent studies using standardized written guidelines for therapy have demonstrated a mortality rate of less than 5%, with higher mortality rates observed in elderly patients and those with concomitant life-threatening illnesses. Worldwide, infection is the most common precipitating cause for DKA, occurring in 30-50% of cases. Urinary tract infection and pneumonia account for the majority of infections. Other precipitating causes are intercurrent illnesses (i.e., surgery, trauma, myocardial ischemia, pancreatitis), psychological stress, and non-compliance with insulin therapy. The triad of uncontrolled hyperglycemia, metabolic acidosis and increased total body ketone concentration characterizes DKA. These metabolic derangements result from the combination of absolute or relative insulin deficiency and increased levels of counter-regulatory hormones (glucagon, catecholamines, cortisol, and growth hormone). Successful treatment of DKA requires frequent monitoring of patients, correction of hypovolemia and hyperglycemia, replacement of electrolyte losses, and careful search for the precipitating cause. Since the majority of DKA cases occur in patients with a known history of diabetes, this acute metabolic complication should be largely preventable through early detection, and by the education of patients, healthcare professionals, and the general public. The frequency of hospitalizations for DKA has been reduced following diabetes education programs, improved follow-up care, and access to medical advice. Novel approaches to patient education incorporating a variety of healthcare beliefs and socioeconomic issues are critical to an effective prevention program.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acidosis
  • Bicarbonates / administration & dosage
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / complications
  • Diabetic Ketoacidosis / diagnosis
  • Diabetic Ketoacidosis / etiology*
  • Diabetic Ketoacidosis / prevention & control
  • Diabetic Ketoacidosis / therapy*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Fluid Therapy
  • Humans
  • Insulin / administration & dosage
  • Insulin / therapeutic use
  • Ketones / blood
  • Phosphates / administration & dosage
  • Potassium / administration & dosage
  • Risk Factors


  • Bicarbonates
  • Insulin
  • Ketones
  • Phosphates
  • Potassium