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Did you know that there are currently more than 50 medicine options to treat diabetes on the market today?  Although these medicines are wonderful tools to help people with diabetes control their blood sugars and prevent complications, understanding how they fit into your plan may be somewhat of a puzzle.

The medicines come as pills, non-insulin injections and insulin. When combined with a healthy meal plan and regular exercise, the medicines are quite effective at controlling blood sugar levels and helping people live long, healthy lives.  Some may even help with weight loss.

someone with diabetes doing an insulin injection into their stomach for diabetes education

How insulin works

In order to understand the medicines, we must first define insulin and explain how it works in your body. Insulin is a natural hormone produced by the pancreas that lowers blood sugar. When you eat food, it breaks down into small particles of blood sugar that move into the blood stream. When blood sugar rises, signals are sent to the pancreas to produce insulin. Insulin then carries blood sugar into the body cells for energy. So, the bottom line is that food turns into blood sugar that is used to fuel your body.  

nurse testing elderly man's blood sugar blood glucose with a glucose monitor and finger stick to check his diabetes and endocrinology

Types of diabetes 

Identifying the types of diabetes begins the process of sorting the puzzle pieces. There are three main types of diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition where the body’s immune system goes haywire and destroys the insulin producing cells in the pancreas. The body does not produce insulin.  It is usually diagnosed in children and young adults. Insulin is always used to treat type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes involves a combination of problems with metabolism. The top three core defects include the pancreas not making enough insulin, the body not using insulin efficiently (insulin resistance) and the liver releasing too much sugar. It is usually diagnosed in adults with certain risk factors (being overweight, not having an active lifestyle, a family history or gestational diabetes, some ethnic groups). Sometimes children are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes may be treated with one or more types of medicine:  pills, non-insulin injections and/or insulin therapy. It may be possible for type 2 diabetes to be controlled with only meal planning and exercise. 

Gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes is high blood sugar during pregnancy that usually goes away after delivery. Having gestational diabetes increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.  It may be controlled by following a meal plan and exercising (as directed by doctor) or with the addition of insulin or oral medicines approved for pregnancy.

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Classes of medicines to treat diabetes

Grouping the medicines into classes helps us to understand how they match up with the types of diabetes. How a medicine works is called the action. The action targets specific core defects. Some medicines have more than one action.

All people with type 1 diabetes, some people with type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes take insulin. Insulin is typically given by injection or insulin pump. An inhaled version is available but not prescribed as often due to concerns over problems with the lungs.

Here’s a list of medicines used to treat diabetes. If the medicine is not available in generic, the brand name will be listed. 


Types of insulin differ in how quick they work and how long they last. These differences are called the action profiles.

Insulin Precautions

All types of insulin may cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Checking blood sugar levels several times a day and carrying hypoglycemia treatment will help keep you safe. (See hypoglycemia treatment instructions below.)

Taking insulin at the right time is important to reduce the risk of hyper or hypoglycemia (high or low blood sugar). Be sure to check with your doctor, pharmacist or diabetes educator on the proper time to take your insulin.

Insulin is time and temperature sensitive. Be sure to check the expiration date and ask your doctor, pharmacist or diabetes educator how to store insulin properly.

Injecting insulin in different spots around your body is important for consistent absorption.  

elderly white couple dividing up medicine for diabetes management

Oral medicines

Types of oral medicines differ based on their action and how they work on the core defects.

Non-insulin Injections

GLP-1 Receptor Agonists and SGLT2 Inhibitors protect the heart &/or kidneys.

Here are a few articles that will help you learn more.

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Basics of medicine

When you’ve been prescribed medicine by your doctor, here are some important things to understand:

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How to save money on prescriptions

Nurse taking elderly woman's blood sugar with glucometer

Learn more through diabetes education

If you have never met with a diabetes educator to help you develop an individualized meal plan and exercise program, please ask your diabetes provider to send a referral to NMC Health Diabetes Education or a diabetes educator in your area.   

If you would like to learn more, please connect to our virtual Diabetes Support Group on the second Thursday of each month, or the NMC Health Diabetes educators at 316-804-6147.

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