If you require insulin to manage your diabetes, it often means that you need to learn how and when to administer your own injections. The good news is that it’s easier and less painful than ever.
Kathy Bostrom, 68, has been self-administering injections for over 15 years. She says that once you get the hang of it, the shot quickly becomes no big deal.
„Syringes have come a long way since I started my journey,“ says Bostrom, who lives in Mills River, NC. The greater challenge for her is „testing, remembering to record it, and taking the right foods.“
There are two types of injection methods: syringes and pens. You and your doctor can decide which one works best for you.
Syringes are simple and have been around the longest. But they are also more susceptible to errors, says Ellen Leschek, MD, Program Director of the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology, and Metabolic Diseases at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
„You have to rely on someone to look at the needle, determine the correct number of units, estimate correctly, have the correct number of units, and not make a mistake during any of these steps,“ says Leschek.
On the other hand, injection pens come pre-loaded with insulin. You screw or snap on a needle, and set the pen to the required dose. „It’s more user-friendly and fail-safe,“ says Leschek.
You will also need several other materials, including:
- A glucose meter set for testing your blood sugar levels
- Alcohol swabs for the bottle cap and your skin at the injection site
- A container for sharp objects for used needles
You’ll also want to have all of these things in a travel bag that you can take with you on the go. As a last resort, you can dispose of your used needles in a plastic bottle with a cap.
Your doctor will advise you how often you need to take your insulin daily. You may only need to do this once or up to four times a day.
Insulin comes in different forms:
Rapid-acting. The effect starts about 15 minutes after injection.
Regular or short-acting. Also called mealtime insulin, take it about 30 minutes before eating to manage your blood sugar after a meal.
Intermediate-acting. It takes about 2–4 hours to reach your bloodstream and lasts about 12–18 hours.
Long-acting. Taken daily at the same time.
Ultra-long-acting. Some of these can last 36 hours or longer, reducing the number of injections needed.
You may also need to take two different types of insulin at the same time.
Tom Cullen, 46, from New Orleans, says it took some time for him to become comfortable with self-injections. „I was nervous, especially the first few times,“ he says.
Now „it’s like putting in contact lenses or tying a tie. It’s just a routine part of my daily routine.“
To administer your own injection, you need to:
- Wash your hands.
- Wipe the top of the vial (if using one) with an alcohol swab.
- For a syringe: draw air into the syringe equal to your insulin dosage, push the air into your insulin vial, draw the insulin into the syringe, then tap the syringe to remove any air bubbles.
- For a pen: attach the needle to the end, push out one or two units (a „prime“) to ensure the pen is working, then dial your dose.
- Hold the needle at a 90-degree angle to your skin and insert it into the outer fatty layer. Then push the insulin pen button or syringe plunger.
- Dispose the needle in a sharps container.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when administering insulin injections:
Stay cool. Insulin can be stored at room temperature for a while, but it’s best kept in the fridge. If you anticipate being away from home for a while, take your insulin in an insulated lunchbox to prevent it from getting too warm.
Rotate injection sites. Injecting in the same spot causes your skin to thicken and harden into lumps of fat, where insulin isn’t absorbed. So, use a different site each time. Leschek recommends a grid system. Draw a grid on paper of your arms, legs, abdomen, and buttocks and note where and when you inject. You can start with the left arm, right arm, left leg, right leg, right side of the abdomen, then left, then right and left buttock. Repeat.
Mind your numbers. According to your blood sugar levels and how you’re feeling, you can best determine if your injections are working. If your numbers are hard to control or you notice high and low blood sugar readings, Leschek suggests reviewing your technique. A certified diabetes educator can observe and ensure that everything goes smoothly with your insulin injections.
Anticipate. When injecting at mealtimes, you need to plan what you will eat to get the correct dose. Keep a travel kit with supplies and snacks like peanut butter or candy in case you’re traveling to a place with no food available.
Mark your team. Good diabetes care takes a team. In addition to your endocrinologist, work with a certified diabetes educator or pharmacist who can answer your injection-related questions.
Be open and honest. For you to feel comfortable, your team needs to know exactly how your injections are going. „Tell the truth – they’ve heard it all before,“ says Bostrom. „And then don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s a learning curve every day. You’ve got this.“