Avoiding Insulin Dosage Mistakes

Medical experts say the best way to minimize tragic endings like this are to read insulin labels carefully—and to double—check your doctor's prescriptions, too.

"Even in hospital settings, insulin is considered to be one of the high risk medications because if you take too much you can end up with serious consequences," says Suzanne Khanna, program coordinator at CentraState Medical Center in Freehold, New Jersey. "You definitely have to advocate for yourself to make sure that what you are prescribed is what was dispensed."

Some insulins have such similar names it is easy to get confused, Khanna says. "Some of the insulins that sound alike all have their own way of acting just a little bit differently in the body," Khanna explains.

Medication mistakes can happen, says Carolyn Swithers, RN, CDE, director of the Center for Nutrition and Diabetes Management at Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington, NJ.  But they'd be a lot less common, she says, if everyone on insulin (or the parents, if the child is on insulin) were to take a diabetes education course.

Follow these tips so that you can be smart about insulin doses:

  • If you are new to insulin, you need to meet with a certified diabetes educator who can help you figure it all out," Swithers says. "There are more than 30 kinds of insulin and they may peak at different times and last in the body for different periods of time.  Rapid-acting insulins may last for three to five hours, Swithers says, while basal insulin tries "to mimic what your pancreas puts out constantly, and you need another injection each day." And since it's very common to be on more than one kind of insulin, this can add to the confusion and is all the more reason for you to work with a diabetes educator to learn as much as possible about each, Swithers advises.
  • Obtain a copy of the prescription from your health care provider so you can compare it to what is actually dispensed by the pharmacy, Swithers says.

  • As another precaution, when the doctor prescribes a particular type of insulin and the dose, write it down and read it back to the doctor, Swithers advises. "Insulin doses change often, depending upon whether your blood sugar is high or low," she says. "Writing everything down is a good way to remember."

  • Finally, once you open a bottle of insulin, write the date on the bottle in permanent marker, Khanna advises. Then you'll know when to discard it. "Most bottles of insulin, once open, should be discarded after 28 days," she says.