How Hypoglycemia Can Trick a Nevada DUI Breath Test
Explained by Las Vegas DUI Defense Lawyers

dizzy female driver

How hypoglycemia mimics DUI

Hypoglycemia is a fancy name for low blood sugar. Low blood sugar can have several causes, including:

  • Fasting,
  • Taking too much insulin when you have diabetes,or
  • Certain illnesses of the liver, kidneys or endocrine system.

If you've ever experienced low blood sugar, you know it can cause dizziness, confusion, sweating and anxiety – symptoms that can also occur when you are drunk.

What you may not know, however, is that in some cases hypoglycemia can also cause a Nevada DUI breath test to register a false “positive.”

With this 1-2 punch of physical / psychological symptoms and a falsely high BAC (blood alcohol concentration) reading, hypoglycemia could get you arrested for a Nevada DUI – even if you aren't drunk.

To help you better understand how hypoglycemia can lead to a Nevada DUI arrest, our Las Vegas and Reno DUI defense lawyers discuss the following, below:

breathalyzer showing .13 BAC

1. What is hypoglycemia?

Our bodies depend on glucose (blood sugar) for energy. Glucose is created when our bodies break down dietary carbohydrates.

In healthy people, the body produces the hormone insulin in order to carry glucose from the bloodstream into the cells of the body. In diabetics, however, the body either does not produce insulin at all (Type 1 diabetes) or it produces insufficient amounts of insulin or does not use insulin properly (Type 2 diabetes).

People with Type 1 diabetes must rely on medicinal insulin. However, the diabetic must take only enough insulin to hold blood sugar levels steady. Too much insulin in the bloodstream and the body's cells can absorb too much glucose, leaving blood sugar levels dangerously low.

Thus there are two common scenarios under which a person might become hypoglycemic:

  1. Inadequate intake of carbohydrates due to fasting, starvation or low-carb diets; or
  2. An insulin overdose by people with diabetes.

Certain endocrine disorders or diseases of the liver, adrenal glands, or pancreas can also cause hypoglycemia.

Additionally, there is a condition known as “reactive hypoglycemia” or “postprandial hypoglycemia.” Reactive hypoglycemia occurs in certain people after they eat a carbohydrate-heavy meal. The production of insulin spikes to deal with the extra glucose, resulting in symptoms similar to a mild insulin overdose.

To learn more about DUI and diabetes, you may wish to view our page on Diabetes as a DUI Defense in Nevada.

And for more information on DUI and diet, please see our article: How a Low-Carb / High-Protein Diet Can "Trick" a Nevada DUI Breath Test.

2. How hypoglycemia can make you seem drunk

Symptoms of low blood sugar often include (but are not limited to):

  • Confusion,
  • Inability to complete routine tasks,
  • Double or blurred vision,
  • Heart palpitations,
  • Shakiness,
  • Anxiety, and
  • Sweating.

In serious cases of hypoglycemia, people can even suffer seizures or lose consciousness.

Many of these symptoms of hypoglycemia are also present in people who have had too much to drink. So if you are pulled over by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police or other law enforcement agency when you are hypoglycemic, an officer may suspect that you are drunk. In such a case, the officer may ask you to take a Nevada DUI breath test. But this can have unexpected results.

3. How hypoglycemia can cause a false positive on a Nevada DUI breath test

We've seen how a high-protein/low-carb diet -- or, if you are diabetic, too much insulin -- can result in your body not having enough glucose for fuel. When the body doesn't get enough glucose for energy, it "burns" stored fat instead.

Fat is broken down by the liver. The liver turns the fat into various substances, some of which are known as "ketone bodies" or "ketones." In the absence of glucose, the body can use ketone bodies as fuel.[1]

However, a byproduct of ketone production is isopropyl alcohol, the type of alcohol found in solvents such as acetone. It is different than ethyl alcohol, the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages.

Excess ketones and isopropyl alcohol are excreted in the urine and breath.They can even give the breath a distinctive "fruity" odor that smells like alcohol.[2] 

But sometimes excretion can't keep up with ketone production. In people with Type 1 diabetes, the resulting buildup of ketones can lead to a potentially life-threatening condition known as “diabetic ketoacidosis” or “DKA.” The symptoms of DKA often resemble those of alcohol impairment. A law enforcement officer who is not a diabetes expert could easily mistake DKA for alcohol impairment.

Even in people who are simply fasting, however, excreted ketones and isopropyl alcohol can register as blood alcohol. This is because Nevada DUI breath testing devices are not sophisticated enough to consistently tell the difference between isopropyl and ethyl alcohol – no matter what the manufacturers of breath testing equipment might say.[3]

So people suffering from hypoglycemia can not only appear drunk, but a Nevada DUI breath test can seemingly confirm it. However, all is not lost...

4. How a Nevada DUI lawyer can help establish your innocence

Just because you tested “positive” on a Nevada DUI breath test, that doesn't mean you will be convicted of DUI.

An experienced DUI lawyer who understands the science behind Nevada DUI breath testing and hypoglycemia can help you keep your freedom.

Our caring Reno and Las Vegas DUI lawyers can help track down witnesses who can testify regarding your medical condition or dietary habits. With the help of an expert witness, we'll argue to the prosecutor how these – and not alcohol – led to your unsafe driving and/or high BAC on your Nevada DUI breath test.

And if your case goes to trial, we'll use the evidence to try to create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury.

Charged with DUI in Reno or Las Vegas? Call us for help…

female receptionist wearing headset

If you were arrested for DUI and you suffer from hypoglycemia or another medical condition, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation.

Our compassionate Nevada DUI attorneys know that a high BAC doesn't necessarily mean you were guilty. We'll listen to your side of the story and present it in the best light to the prosecutor and, if necessary, the judge or jury.

To schedule your free consultation call us at 702-DEFENSE (702-333-3673) or fill out the form on this page. One of our Nevada DUI lawyers will get back to you promptly to begin planning the best defense to your Nevada drunk driving charges.

To learn about DUI and hypoglycemia in California, please see our article: How Low-Carb / High-Protein Diets or Hypoglycemia Can "Trick" a California DUI Breath Test.

Legal references:

  1. Jeanette Allen Behre, Studies in Ketone Body Excretion, Journal of Biological Chemistry, June 25, 1931,  J. Biol. Chem. 1931, 92:679-697.
  2. Alice and Fred Ottoboni, Ketosis, Ketone Bodies, and Ketoacidosis: Modern Nutritional Diseases, 2nd Edition, Chapter 8 (Lipids), February 20th, 2013 (“Excess ketone bodies are excreted by the kidneys and lungs. Exhaled acetone gives the breath a characteristic, sweetish odor.”).
  3. Lawrence Taylor, Drunk Driving Defense 3d Edition, page 685. ("...the likelihood exists of auto-generated isopropyl alcohol upon the introduction of carbohydrates in the presence of ketosis and that the Intoxilyzer [DUI breath testing instrument] cannot dependably distinguish ethanol from isopropyl alcohol.").

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