Diabetes and driving - how is your blood sugar level?

When people receive a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes, they know that they have to alter their lifestyles to efficiently manage the condition. While eating healthy foods, exercising and taking insulin may be a given, few may ponder how the effects of diabetes may impact their driving.

Millions are affected
In the U.S., there are almost 26 million individuals currently living with either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, according to the National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Among affected people, 5 percent have Type 1, in which little to no insulin is produced by the pancreas. This in turn limits blood glucose from getting into the cells to be converted to energy. Instead, it builds up in the bloodstream.

As of yet, there is no exact cause for why some people have Type 1 diabetes. Researchers believe it to be an autoimmune disorder that is the result of both biological and environmental triggers.

For people who take insulin, low blood sugar - or hypoglycemia - can develop quickly and occurs when blood sugar levels fall below 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). Common symptoms include headache, hunger, nervousness, rapid heartbeat, shaking, sweating and weakness, according to the National Institutes of Health.

So, what would happen if an individual with Type 1 diabetes experienced a bout of hypoglycemia while driving?

Driving under the influence of diabetes
The New York Times recently published an article telling the story of a 47-year-old man who became disoriented while driving to the point where he had to pull over to the side of the road. When the police found him, they thought he was intoxicated and handcuffed him, breaking his wrist. This is a major issue, as such an episode requires immediate medical attention to raise the affected individual's blood sugar level.

Before driving, people with diabetes should always check their blood glucose, especially since they are 12 to 19 percent more likely to experience a car accident than drivers without the condition, according to a meta-analysis published in the journal Diabetes Care.

"If it drops [below 70 mg/dL], then you get into some severe thinking and judgment issues, and that's what we're concerned about," Daniel Lorber, M.D., director of endocrinology at New York Hospital Queens, told The Times. "You could pass out or have a seizure."

Not just an issue for people with Type 1 diabetes
Although hypoglycemia is most often seen in patients with Type 1 diabetes who take insulin, it can happen to those with Type 2 as well. Some individuals with Type 2 take diabetes medications in the sulfonylureas class, which stimulate the pancreas to release insulin. These drugs may trigger low blood sugar, especially if they are long acting. The moral of the story is that all patients with diabetes, regardless of type, have an obligation to check their blood glucose levels before getting in the front seat of a car - for their own safety as well as that of others on the road.