Difference between panic attack and low blood sugar

What is the difference between a panic attack and a low sugar level?

1 June 2018

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A panic attack is very sudden in onset and includes an intense fear and anxiety. There is often no warning and no apparent reason for it, but they can be triggered by a stressful event such as bereavement.

During a panic attack your body goes into fight or flight mode - your breathing rate increases, muscles tense and heart rate quickens.

Low blood sugar – or hypoglycaemia – is when the glucose level in your blood is too low. It is often associated with being diabetic, but can also be caused by other factors, including skipping a meal, intense exercise or activity, and binge drinking.

While the two are very different, some of the symptoms – such as trembling, sweating and a high heart rate – are similar.

Here is a full list of symptoms for both so you can differentiate.

Symptoms of low blood sugar

A low blood sugar level can cause a number of symptoms that get better a few minutes after eating sugar. They include:

  • Paleness
  • Trembling
  • Perspiration
  • A feeling of weakness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Hunger
  • Agitation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision.

See our sugar crash infographic for information about how to manage your sugar levels. And if low blood sugar does turn out to be the cause of your symptoms, whether it’s associated with diabetes or not, you may wish to visit our diabetes centre, where you’ll find lots more information, tips and tasty recipes to help you avoid low blood sugar attacks in the future.

Symptoms of a panic attack

These are the common symptoms that people can feel during a panic attack:

  • Over-breathing (hyperventilating)
  • Palpitations and/or accelerated heart rate
  • Dry heaving and/or gagging
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or being smothered
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded or faint
  • De-realisation (feelings of unreality) or depersonalisation (being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control or going insane
  • Sense of impending death
  • Paraesthesias (numbness or tingling sensations)
  • Chills or hot flushes.

For more information about anxiety and panic attacks, visit our mental health centre. Here you’ll also find real life examples of people experiencing similar symptoms to your own, including Anna’s story about learning to live with anxiety.

If you’re still unsure what’s been happening to you, talk to your doctor who will be able to help work out which applies to you and discuss how best to manage your symptoms.

Answered by the Health at Hand team  

Sources and further reading

Treatment, causes and prevention of low blood sugar – NHS Choices

Managing and treating anxiety and panic attacks – AXA PPP healthcare

Learning to live with anxiety – Anna’s story

Useful resources

Diabetes centre – AXA PPP healthcare

Mental health centre – AXA PPP healthcare

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