Since its discovery 100 years ago in 1922, glucagon has made a significant impact in diabetes care management. But if you're new to diabetes, you might be wondering, what is glucagon? And what is glucagon used for?

A key hormone formed in the pancreas and the main source of fuel for the body and brain, glucagon prevents blood sugar levels from dropping too low (whereas insulin helps keep blood glucose from rising too high). For anyone with diabetes, their family and their caretakers, monitoring and managing blood glucose levels to make sure that insulin and glucagon levels are in balance is a daily task, essential to the body working properly.

If you have diabetes or know someone with the disease, there's a good chance you're familiar with the roles insulin and glucagon play in stabilizing glucose levels and preventing highs and lows — like hypoglycemia. While the commercialized use of insulin has been widespread in diabetes management since the 1960s, the latest advancements in glucagon treatment for hypoglycemia and severe hypoglycemia have occurred more recently.

What is hypoglycemia?

Anyone undergoing type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes treatment with insulin is at risk for mild, moderate or severe hypoglycemia, which can occur when blood glucose levels drop below 70 mg/dL. While a mild or moderate low can be corrected with sugar, a severe low requires prescription glucagon administration.

Hypoglycemia symptoms

  • Pale skin, shakiness or dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Muscle weakness
  • Headache

Severe hypoglycemia symptoms

  • Confusion
  • Inability to speak, eat or drink
  • Loss of coordination
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • Loss of consciousness

Awareness of the symptoms of hypoglycemia and severe lows is key to being able to act quickly. So is making sure that family, friends and caregivers know how to administer rescue glucagon — so the low can be safely managed. The Endocrine Society's Know Hypo campaign has helped increase awareness of hypoglycemia, encouraging patients and their caregivers to take action sooner with glucagon to prevent complications.

History of glucagon

For decades, emergency glucagon kits — which contain a vial of glucagon powder and a syringe filled with saline — were the only commercially available options for treating severe lows. But in 2019, pre-filled syringes and needleless nasal sprays became available, and in 2020, glucagon autoinjectors came to market. These innovative glucagon treatments have made it simpler than ever to be prepared for low blood sugar.

If you don't have a glucagon prescription, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor about which treatment option could work for you. Having glucagon on-hand will help you feel more prepared in the event of severe lows.

From the latest diabetes technology for monitoring insulin levels to ready-to-use glucagon injections, we've seen exciting improvements in diabetes care that are removing some of the burdens associated with managing diabetes. Over the last century, rescue glucagon has become a critical, even life-saving medication that helps those with diabetes take back control.