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Dextrose is the name of a simple sugar that is made from corn and is chemically identical to glucose, or blood sugar. Dextrose is often used in baking products as a sweetener, and can be commonly found in items such as processed foods and corn syrup.
Dextrose also has medical purposes. It is dissolved in solutions that are given intravenously, which can be combined with other drugs, or used to increase a person’s blood sugar.
Because dextrose is a "simple" sugar, the body can quickly use it for energy.
Simple sugars can raise blood sugar levels very quickly, and they often lack nutritional value. Examples of other simple sugars include glucose, fructose, and galactose. Products that are typically made of simple sugars include refined sugar, white pasta, and honey.
Dextrose is used to make several intravenous (IV) preparations or mixtures, which are available only at a hospital or medical facility.
Dextrose is also available as an oral gel or in oral tablet form over the counter from pharmacies.
Each dextrose concentration has its own unique uses. Higher concentrations are typically used as "rescue" doses when someone has a very low blood sugar reading.
Dextrose is used in various concentrations for different purposes. For example, a doctor may prescribe dextrose in an IV solution when someone is dehydrated and has low blood sugar. Dextrose IV solutions can also be combined with many drugs, for IV administration.
Dextrose is a carbohydrate, which is one part of nutrition in a normal diet. Solutions containing dextrose provide calories and may be given intravenously in combination with amino acids and fats. This is called total parenteral nutrition (TPN) and is used to provide nutrition to those who cannot absorb or get carbohydrates, amino acids, and fats through their gut.
High-concentration dextrose injections are only given by professionals. These injections are administered to people whose blood sugar may be very low and who cannot swallow dextrose tablets, foods, or drinks.
If a person’s potassium levels are too high (hyperkalemia), sometimes doctors also give dextrose injections of 50 percent, followed by insulin intravenously. This may be done in the hospital setting. When the cells take in the extra glucose, they also take in potassium. This helps to lower a person’s blood potassium levels. The dextrose is given to prevent the person from being hypoglycemic. The insulin is treating the elevated potassium.
People with diabetes or hypoglycemia (chronically low blood sugar) may carry dextrose gel or tablets in case their blood sugar gets too low. The gel or tablets dissolve in a person’s mouth and quickly boost blood sugar levels. If a person’s blood sugar is less than 70 mg/dL and they are having low blood sugar symptoms, they may need to take the dextrose tablets. Examples of low blood sugar symptoms include weakness, confusion, sweating, and too-fast heart rate.
A medical provider should not give dextrose to people with certain kinds of medical conditions. This is because the dextrose could potentially cause too-high blood sugar or fluid shifts in the body that lead to swelling or fluid buildup in the lungs.
If you are diabetic and your doctor prescribes dextrose oral gel or tablets for you, these should only be used when you have a low blood sugar reaction. Your doctor or diabetes educator should teach you how to spot the signs of low blood sugar and when to use the tablets. If you need to have the gel or tablets on hand, you should keep them with you at all times and you should keep some at home. Your doctor should also explain to other family members when to use the gel or tablets, in case others need to give them to you.
If you have an allergy to corn, you could have an allergic reaction to dextrose. Talk to your doctor before using it.
Even if you don’t have certain conditions, it is important to continually check your blood sugar if they are receiving dextrose. This can ensure that the dextrose does not dangerously increase blood sugar. You can check your blood sugar with home tests. They involve testing blood from a finger prick on a blood strip. For those who are physically unable to test their blood at home, urine glucose tests are available, though they’re not as reliable.
If you do find that you or someone else is having a negative reaction due to low blood sugar, the dextrose tablets should be taken immediately. According to the Joslin Diabetes Center, four glucose tablets are equal to 15 grams of carbs and can be taken in the case of low blood sugar levels (unless otherwise advised by your doctor). Chew the tablets thoroughly before swallowing. No water is needed. Your symptoms should improve within 20 minutes. If they don’t, consult your doctor.
The dextrose gel often comes in single-serving tubes, which are poured directly into the mouth and swallowed. If you haven’t felt any positive changes after 10 minutes, repeat with another tube. If your blood sugar is still too low after an additional 10 minutes, contact your doctor.
Dextrose can be used in children similarly to how it is used in adults, as a medical intervention for hypoglycemia.
In cases of severe pediatric hypoglycemia, children will often be given dextrose intravenously. Prompt and early treatment in children and infants with hypoglycemia is essential, as untreated hypoglycemia can result in neurological damage. If they’re able to take it, dextrose may be given to children orally.
In the case of neonatal hypoglycemia, which can be caused by several disorders such as metabolism defects or hyperinsulinism, infants can have small amounts of dextrose gel added to their diet to help them maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Consult your doctor for how much dextrose to add to their diet. Infants that were born prematurely are at risk for hypoglycemia, and may be given dextrose via an IV.
Dextrose is naturally calorie-dense and easy for the body to break down for energy. Because of this, dextrose powder is available and sometimes used as a nutritional supplement by bodybuilders who are looking to increase weight and muscle.
While the boost in calories and easy to break down nature of dextrose can benefit bodybuilders or those looking to increase muscle mass, it’s important to note that dextrose lacks other essential nutrients that are needed to accomplish this goal. Those nutrients include protein and fat. Dextrose powder’s simple sugars also make it easier to break down, while complex sugars and carbohydrates may benefit bodybuilders more, as they are more successful at helping fat to burn.
Dextrose should be carefully given to people who have diabetes, because they might not be able to process dextrose as quickly as would someone without the condition. Dextrose can increase the blood sugar too much, which is known as hyperglycemia.
If you need to use dextrose, your blood sugar could increase too much afterward. You should test your blood sugar after using dextrose tablets, as directed by your doctor or diabetes educator. You may need to adjust your insulin to lower your blood sugar.
If you are given IV fluids with dextrose in the hospital, your nurse will check your blood sugar. If the blood sugar tests too high, the dose of your IV fluids may be adjusted or even stopped, until your blood sugar reaches a safer level. You could also be given insulin, to help reduce your blood sugar.
Dextrose’s simple sugar composition makes it useful as a treatment for hypoglycemia and low blood sugar for patients of all ages, with some treatment options being convenient and portable. It is safe to use long-term on an as-needed basis. Dextrose does not come without risks, however, and even those without diabetes should carefully monitor their blood sugar when taking it.
Always consult a doctor before stopping treatment for diabetes, or if you test your blood sugar and it is high. If you have glucose gel or tablets in your home, keep them away from children. Large amounts taken by small children could be especially dangerous.
Written by: Rachel Nall, RN, BSN and Ana Gotter
Medically reviewed on: Jul 29, 2016: Modern Weng, D.O.
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