How to test for diabetes at home
In the United States, more than 1 in 4 of the 30.3 million people with the disease in 2015 did not know they had it.
For people who already have a diagnosis of diabetes, a simple home blood glucose test is vital for enabling them to manage their blood sugar levels.
A home blood glucose test could even be lifesaving by preventing the complications of consistently high blood sugar. The complications of diabetes can include cardiovascular disease, kidney problems, and nerve damage.
How to test for diabetes at home
People can test their blood glucose at home using a blood glucose monitor.
Home blood glucose monitoring indicates how effectively the body is processing glucose.
A home blood glucose kit reads glucose testing strips. These strips allow the machine to detect the level of glucose in a drop of blood.
People obtain a sample of their blood with a lancet, or small, short needle.
For the most accurate testing, people should keep a record or log of the food they eat and look for trends in their blood glucose readings.
Whether consuming a high- or low-carbohydrate meal, a higher-than-normal blood sugar reading after a person has eaten suggests that their body is not reducing blood glucose successfully after mealtimes.
Before testing, people will need to read the manual for the blood glucose monitor and testing strips. Many home glucose monitors work in different ways. In most cases, people should only insert testing strips into the monitor immediately before a reading.
After consulting a doctor about the right testing schedule and frequency, a person can follow these steps:
- Wash and dry the hands before handling the testing kit.
- Some methods recommend cleansing the testing area with an alcohol swab. Others may merely advise washing with warm, soapy water. With either, make sure the area is dry before taking a sample.
- Some glucose monitors allow testing on the arm or another, less sensitive area of the body. Rapid changes in blood sugar may not present accurately in less sensitive areas. The finger is usually best when monitoring for rapid changes in blood sugar.
- When testing on the finger, use the side of the finger, and test different fingers on each occasion. Most lancets allow the user to set how deep they penetrate the skin. People with thicker or drier skin should set the penetration higher.
- Before lancing the finger, position it against a solid surface. Apply the lance firmly but not forcefully.
- Gently squeeze the finger while holding it at chest level and allow a drop of blood to flow onto the test strip.
- Note and record the blood glucose reading following each test.
Some people with diabetes also use an alternative blood test to measure glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c). The procedure for this test is mostly the same but will produce different readings.
Sometimes known as A1c, the test indicates blood sugar levels over several weeks.
When should testing occur?
A doctor might recommend testing at three different times, and often over the course of several days:
- Morning fasting reading: This provides information about blood glucose levels before a person eats or drinks anything. Taking blood glucose readings before eating provides a baseline number. This number offers clues about glucose processes during the day.
- Before a meal: Blood glucose before a meal tends to be low, so a high blood glucose reading at this time suggests difficulties managing blood sugar.
- After a meal: Post-meal testing gives a good idea about how the body reacts to food, and if sugar can reach the cells efficiently. Blood glucose readings after a meal can help diagnose gestational diabetes, which happens during pregnancy. Most doctors recommend testing about 2 hours after a meal.
The doctor will personalize the glucose monitoring schedule for the individual.
Take abnormal blood test results to a doctor.
For people with diabetes, blood sugar readings should be as follows:
- Fasting (morning testing or before a meal): 80–130 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl)
- Before meals: 70–130 mg/dl
- Two hours after starting meals: Below 180 mg/dl
- At bedtime: Under 120 mg/dl
- HbA1c: 7.0 percent or lower
Before beginning home testing, it is important that people get clear, target figures from their doctor.
Target numbers may vary from person to person and may change over time, depending on an individual's health, age, weight, and other factors.
For people who do not have diabetes, blood sugar levels should be within the following ranges:
- Fasting (morning testing or before a meal): under 100 mg/dl
- Before meals: Less than 110 mg/dl
- Two hours after meals: Below 140 mg/dl
- At bedtime: Under 120 mg/dl
- HbA1c: 5.7 percent or lower
A person cannot diagnose diabetes using home testing alone. People with unusual readings will need further testing by a doctor.
The doctor might carry out fasting tests, oral glucose tolerance tests, HbA1c tests, or use a combination of these methods.
Choosing a blood glucose monitor
A blood glucose monitor, testing strips, and a lancet to draw the blood are all necessary for testing. Some testing kits offer all three, while others require separate purchases for each piece.
People with diabetes use many testing strips, and so it may be wise to carefully consider the cost of the testing strips as well as the monitor.
Some other tips for buying a monitor include:
- Select one with automatic coding to avoid the need to code in results with every test.
- Check insurance plans to see if an insurer only covers certain monitors.
- Look at whether the unit stores previous data.
- Consider portability, since larger units can be difficult to carry around.
- Think about blood sample size, particularly for people who do not like pricking themselves.
Monitors that require a smaller blood sample may be more comfortable as the depth of the lancet can be less.
Symptoms of diabetes
If a person with diabetes has symptoms, extreme thirst might develop.
Many people with diabetes have no signs of the disease at all. However, the lack of symptoms does not necessarily mean the absence of diabetes.
When symptoms occur, many of the effects of type 1 and type 2 diabetes are the same since both affect blood sugar regulation in the body. Symptoms include:
- increased hunger and thirst
- increased urination, particularly at night
- unexplained weight loss
- unexplainable tiredness
- blurred vision
- slow-healing sores, or wounds that appear to heal and then reopen
- high blood pressure
Pregnant women who suddenly experience these symptoms should consider the possibility of diabetes.
The placenta releases hormones during pregnancy that can make it more difficult for the body to control blood sugar. Without treatment, gestational diabetes can cause a range of pregnancy complications.
Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, and the disease can lead to a host of complications.
- cardiovascular problems, such as stroke, heart attack, and blood clots
- wounds, numbness, tingling
- loss of feet or limbs
- kidney failure
- nerve damage
- chronic headaches
- vision and hearing loss
Early interventions and regular glucose monitoring can reduce the risk of severe or potentially fatal diabetes complications.
The right combination of medication and lifestyle changes may even help reverse some cases of diabetes.
When to see a doctor
People using home blood glucose tests who have unusually high results, particularly on more than one occasion, will need to see their doctor.
Those with diabetes who do not correctly manage blood sugar or experience sudden blood sugar changes should also consult a doctor.
The doctor may recommend changes in lifestyle, medication, or both. A person can control diabetes well by managing carbohydrate intake and exercising regularly,
People with prediabetes, or borderline diabetes, are at risk of developing diabetes if they do not act quickly to manage their blood sugar. They should talk to their doctors and continue regularly monitoring blood glucose.
Is anything available on the market that automatically monitors my blood glucose and applies medication whenever necessary?
For people who require insulin injections to control their blood sugar, there is an automatic option. Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM) is a system that automatically tests blood sugar about every 5 minutes. This information is sent to an insulin pump that administers the right amount of insulin, depending on the CGM reading.Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.