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What Do Your Diabetes Numbers Really Mean

July 19, 2019

Diabetes really is a numbers game. Managing both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes means keeping on top of your blood glucose (also called “blood sugar”) numbers. There are two basic tests for evaluating blood glucose – one performed at home and the other at your doctor’s office or lab. Knowing what these tests measure can help you understand why they’re important and what the results mean about your health.

What Is Blood Glucose?

Blood glucose is a product of some of the foods we eat. When we eat carbohydrates — including starches, fruits and sweets — the digestion process turns those foods into sugars. The sugars are released into the blood and delivered to various cells in the body. Insulin, a hormone produced in the pancreas, helps cells absorb the sugars for use as energy. Blood glucose levels go down once the sugars are absorbed. With diabetes, this process is disrupted, resulting in one of two conditions:

  • Type 1 diabetes, in which the pancreas stops making insulin.
  • Type 2 diabetes, in which the pancreas produces some insulin. However, the amount produced isn’t enough or the cells become resistant to it.
How is Blood Glucose Measured?

Doctors use two different tests to measure blood glucose levels:

  • A1c. This test helps diagnose both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. It’s performed in a doctor’s office or at a blood lab and measures blood sugar levels over the previous 2-3 months. Results from this test are given as percentages. The target for people with diabetes is to keep A1c levels below 7%, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
  • Blood glucose. If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes or prediabetes, you might need to take this test once or several times a day at home. It provides a snapshot of blood-sugar levels at the time you take the test. This at-home test involves drawing a drop of blood from your finger onto a test strip. A small meter reads the test strip to analyze your current blood sugar numbers. Your doctor might want you to perform this test multiple times a day and keep a record of the results. Ideal target numbers depend on when the test is taken.
    • 80-130 milligrams/deciliter (mg/dL) when fasting and before meals.
    • Below 180 mg/dL 2 hours after eating a meal.
Managing Your Numbers

You and your physician can work together to develop a long-term plan for keeping your blood glucose at target levels. In the short-term, though, there are ways to help address blood glucose readings that are either too high or too low.

  • Too high. Signs of high blood glucose — or “hyperglycemia” — include feeling very tired, feeling thirsty and experiencing blurry vision. If your blood glucose meter shows levels above your target, or 180 mg/dL, try drinking a large glass of water and exercising with a brisk walk.
  • Too low. Signs of low blood glucose — or “hypoglycemia” — include feeling shaky, feeling clammy or sweaty or feeling very hungry. If a blood glucose reading is below 70 mg/dL, treat it right away by chewing 4 glucose tablets or a few pieces of hard candy, or drinking 4 ounces of fruit juice or regular (not diet) soda. Check your glucose again after 15 minutes and repeat the treatment until your reading climbs to 70 or above. Once this happens, be sure to eat a snack if your next meal is more than 1 hour away.