Common Diabetes Terms

The following common terms are defined by the American Diabetes Association. Please visit the ADA website for the original source and a more comprehensive list of terms.

A1C
a test that measures a person’s average blood glucose level over the past 2 to 3 months. Hemoglobin (HEE-mo-glo-bin) is the part of a red blood cell that carries oxygen to the cells and sometimes joins with the glucose in the bloodstream. Also called hemoglobin A1C or glycosylated (gly-KOH-sih-lay-ted) hemoglobin, the test shows the amount of glucose that sticks to the red blood cell, which is proportional to the amount of glucose in the blood.

adult-onset diabetes
former term for Type 2 diabetes.

alpha cell (AL-fa)
a type of cell in the pancreas. Alpha cells make and release a hormone called glucagon. The body sends a signal to the alpha cells to make glucagon when blood glucose falls too low. Then glucagon reaches the liver where it tells it to release glucose into the blood for energy.

antibodies (AN-ti-bod-eez)
proteins made by the body to protect itself from “foreign” substances such as bacteria or viruses. People get Type 1 diabetes when their bodies make antibodies that destroy the body’s own insulin-making beta cells.

aspartame (ASS-per-tame)
a dietary sweetener with almost no calories and no nutritional value. (Brand names: Equal, NutraSweet)

autoimmune disease (AW-toh-ih-MYOON)
disorder of the body’s immune system in which the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys body tissue that it believes to be foreign.

basal rate
a steady trickle of low levels of longer-acting insulin, such as that used in insulin pumps.

beta cell
a cell that makes insulin. Beta cells are located in the islets of the pancreas.

blood glucose
the main sugar found in the blood and the body’s main source of energy. Also called blood sugar.

blood glucose level
the amount of glucose in a given amount of blood. It is noted in milligrams in a deciliter, or mg/dL.

blood glucose meter
a small, portable machine used by people with diabetes to check their blood glucose levels. After pricking the skin with a lancet, one places a drop of blood on a test strip in the machine. The meter (or monitor) soon displays the blood glucose level as a number on the meter’s digital display.

blood glucose monitoring
checking blood glucose level on a regular basis in order to manage diabetes. A blood glucose meter (or blood glucose test strips that change color when touched by a blood sample) is needed for frequent blood glucose monitoring.

bolus (BOH-lus)
an extra amount of insulin taken to cover an expected rise in blood glucose, often related to a meal or snack.

diabetes educator
a health care professional who teaches people who have diabetes how to manage their diabetes. Some diabetes educators are certified diabetes educators (CDEs). Diabetes educators are found in hospitals, physician offices, managed care organizations, home health care and other settings.

diabetes mellitus (MELL-ih-tus)
a condition characterized by hyperglycemia resulting from the body’s inability to use blood glucose for energy. In Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas no longer makes insulin and therefore blood glucose cannot enter the cells to be used for energy. In Type 2 diabetes, either the pancreas does not make enough insulin or the body is unable to use insulin correctly.

diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) (KEY-toe-ass-ih-DOH-sis)
an emergency condition in which extremely high blood glucose levels, along with a severe lack of insulin, result in the breakdown of body fat for energy and an accumulation of ketones in the blood and urine. Signs of DKA are nausea and vomiting, stomach pain, fruity breath odor and rapid breathing. Untreated DKA can lead to coma and death.

glucagon (GLOO-kah-gahn)
a hormone produced by the alpha cells in the pancreas. It raises blood glucose. An injectable form of glucagon, available by prescription, may be used to treat severe hypoglycemia.

hyperglycemia (HY-per-gly-SEE-mee-uh)
excessive blood glucose. Fasting hyperglycemia is blood glucose above a desirable level after a person has fasted for at least 8 hours. Postprandial hyperglycemia is blood glucose above a desirable level 1 to 2 hours after a person has eaten.

hypoglycemia (hy-po-gly-SEE-mee-uh)
a condition that occurs when one’s blood glucose is lower than normal, usually less than 70 mg/dL. Signs include hunger, nervousness, shakiness, perspiration, dizziness or light-headedness, sleepiness, and confusion. If left untreated, hypoglycemia may lead to unconsciousness. Hypoglycemia is treated by consuming a carbohydrate-rich food such as a glucose tablet or juice. It may also be treated with an injection of glucagon if the person is unconscious or unable to swallow. Also called an insulin reaction.

insulin
a hormone that helps the body use glucose for energy. The beta cells of the pancreas make insulin. When the body cannot make enough insulin, it is taken by injection or through use of an insulin pump.

insulin pen
a device for injecting insulin that looks like a fountain pen and holds replaceable cartridges of insulin. Also available in disposable form.

insulin pump
an insulin-delivering device about the size of a deck of cards that can be worn on a belt or kept in a pocket. An insulin pump connects to narrow, flexible plastic tubing that ends with a needle inserted just under the skin. Users set the pump to give a steady trickle or basal amount of insulin continuously throughout the day. Pumps release bolus doses of insulin (several units at a time) at meals and at times when blood glucose is too high, based on programming done by the user.

ketone
a chemical produced when there is a shortage of insulin in the blood and the body breaks down body fat for energy. High levels of ketones can lead to diabetic ketoacidosis and coma. Sometimes referred to as ketone bodies.

lancet
a spring-loaded device used to prick the skin with a small needle to obtain a drop of blood for blood glucose monitoring.

pancreas (PAN-kree-us)
an organ that makes insulin and enzymes for digestion. The pancreas is located behind the lower part of the stomach and is about the size of a hand.

rapid-acting insulin
a type of insulin that starts to lower blood glucose within 5 to 10 minutes after injection and has its strongest effect 30 minutes to 3 hours after injection, depending on the type used.

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