The first question many people ask when they are told that they have to inject insulin is: “Why an injection? Wouldn’t it be easier if I could just take insulin as a pill?”
It’s a good question, but insulin cannot simply be swallowed as a pill. Why? Because insulin is a protein. If it were in a pill, the acid in the stomach and digestive enzymes would break it down before it could get to the bloodstream where it is needed. An inhalable form of fast-acting insulin is available and may be an option for some people. However, there is currently no inhalable form of long-acting insulin available. So most people with type 1 diabetes must still use injectable long-acting insulin as part of their treatment plan.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways to inject insulin so it can get to your bloodstream where it is needed.
Vial and syringe
Many people who take insulin use an insulin vial and a syringe, which consists of a needle, barrel, and a plunger. At one time, this was the only way to take insulin. Now there are other options, as discussed below.
Prefilled insulin pens
Prefilled insulin pens are small, portable, and self-contained, which allows them to be used discreetly. Some pens are reusable and have an insulin cartridge inside that can be replaced when all the insulin has been used. Others are prefilled with insulin and are disposable, meaning that they can be thrown out once there is no more insulin left inside them. Prefilled pens have a clearly marked and readable dosing dial that helps people set the right amount of insulin to take.
Some people who need insulin may have the option of using an insulin pump instead of taking multiple daily injections of insulin.
- Are computerized and about the size of a deck of cards. Some pumps can be worn on a belt, kept in a pocket, or worn on the skin
- Deliver a measured amount of background (basal) insulin through a small plastic tube throughout the day and when you sleep. This tube is inserted in the skin using a needle, and once the needle is removed the tube is taped in place
- Release a bolus (a surge) of insulin on command, usually just before eating, to control rises in blood sugar that occur after eating
- Are designed to help determine the amount of insulin a person needs
Insulin pumps have many advantages, like being able to release a very small amount of insulin continuously, but it is still important to check blood sugar and adjust the amount of insulin the pump delivers. To use a pump, the person wearing it must also be willing to check blood sugar throughout the day as directed by the diabetes care team.
You or your loved one with type 1 diabetes have options when it comes to injecting insulin, so work with the diabetes care team to choose the right insulin delivery device. And don’t be afraid to voice any concerns—the team is there to help!