Medications to Treat Diabetes



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Medication Primer



Editors
T. Sean Vasaitis, PhD
M. Carol Greenlee, MD



Additional Resources
Affordable Insulin Project
Diabetes Educators
Mayo Clinic
NIDDK (NIH)
FDA

It's very important to take diabetes medications as directed by your doctor. Left untreated, diabetes can lead to serious, even life-threatening complications—other diseases or conditions that are related to diabetes. Complications can lead to loss of vital functions (such as with your kidneys), blindness, amputation of lower limbs, and even death (especially from cardiovascular disease). By taking your medications as directed, you greatly reduce your risk of getting complications.

Treatment depends on the type of diabetes you have. There are three main types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas stops making insulin. It is usually seen in children and teens, but may occur later in life. People with type 1 diabetes need insulin to survive.
  • Type 2 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes. With type 2 diabetes, the body does not produce enough insulin and it becomes resistant to insulin’s effects. It occurs in adults and elderly patients, many of whom are overweight. Younger people can also develop type 2 diabetes.
  • Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that occurs only during pregnancy. It usually goes away after the baby is born. Women who have had gestational diabetes are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes later in life, however.

Treatment includes changes in lifestyle (diet and exercise), plus medicine (if needed): oral medicines (pills), insulin, and/or other injected medicines. People with type 1 diabetes always need insulin. People with type 2 diabetes usually need treatment with oral medicines for several or even many years but may eventually need insulin to maintain glucose control.

Insulin helps you manage your blood glucose levels by "unlocking" cells so that they can access your blood glucose for the energy they need. Without sufficient insulin or when your cells have a condition called insulin resistance, where they cannot use the insulin your pancreas makes properly, blood glucose builds up, and can eventually damage your arteries and cause other problems that can lead to complications. Over time, many people need additional help in controlling blood glucose levels. This is when doctors typically prescribe insulin.

There are many types of medications that can be prescribed for you. The various options may be overwhelming—memorizing all the names and technical terms isn't important, but understanding that there ARE options is what you need to know. Work with your doctor to determine which of these might be most helpful for you.