Woman injecting herself with an insulin pen in her stomach

How to Use an Insulin Pen to Manage Diabetes

Diabetes Insulin Pen

Insulin is a natural hormone that the pancreas makes. It allows your body to use sugar — glucose — from carbohydrates in food that is consumed for energy or allows the glucose to be stored for future use.

People with type 1 diabetes have an absolute absence of insulin in the body, meaning that they require insulin for survival. The beta cells of the pancreas have become damaged or destroyed because type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease.

People with type 2 diabetes are insulin resistant; they are likely making insulin but are unable to use the insulin effectively. Though treatment can include diet, exercise or oral and injectable medications, insulin may also be used to treat type 2 diabetes.

There are various delivery mechanisms for insulin: vial and syringe, insulin pens, and insulin pumps.

What Is an Insulin Pen?

Insulin pens are growing in popularity as they are compact and discreet, allowing for ease of injection in various locations. Most, if not all, insulin is now available in an insulin pen.

An insulin “pen” looks much like a fountain pen — it is a thick pen that is about the width of a thumb. It has a dial at the end that allows the user to “dial up” the dose that is prescribed by their health care provider. When taking off the cap, the user will notice there is a window where the insulin can be viewed.

The top half of the pen houses the insulin; most pens contain 3 milliliters of insulin, which equates to 300 units. If the insulin prescribed is a concentrated insulin, the number of units the pen holds may differ.

Types of Insulin Pens

There are various types of insulin available: long-acting, intermediate-acting, rapid-acting, short-acting and premixed. There are also several insulin companies that make the insulin. All are available in insulin pens.

There are also two categories of insulin pens:

  • Disposable Pens: Most insulin pens fall into this category. The insulin pen is prefilled; once the entirety of the pen is used, it is thrown away.
  • Reusable Pens: A reusable pen requires an insulin cartridge be placed into the refillable pen. Once the cartridge is empty, the cartridge is thrown away.

Regardless of the type of insulin pen prescribed, a disposable needle is required. With each injection, the needle is discarded; a new one is used with the next injection.

How Do Insulin Pens Work?

Insulin pens are a self-contained delivery device. This means that the insulin is encased in the pen and the user simply has to “dial up” the dose desired. Once the desired dose is set, a button is pushed on the end of the pump; pushing this button allows the user to inject the insulin into the body.

This is in contrast to injecting insulin with a syringe, which requires the user to inject air into the vial, draw the insulin out of the vial and into the syringe, and injecting the insulin using the syringe.

How to Use an Insulin Pen

There may be variances with all insulin pens. It is best to review the instructions contained with the insulin before administering.

General step-by-step instructions for administering insulin using an insulin pen are as follows:

  1. Gather necessary supplies: insulin, pen needles and alcohol swabs.
  2. Wash hands using soap and water or use hand sanitizer.
  3. Insulin that is cloudy should be rolled between the hands for approximately one minute. If the insulin is clear, it does not need to be rolled. The insulin should not be shaken as this can cause unnecessary bubbles to form.
  4. Clean the rubber stopper on the insulin pen with an alcohol swab.
  5. Screw the pen needle onto the pen. Once the pen needle is firmly attached, remove the outer cap as well as the inner cap.
  6. Prime the insulin pen. This ensures that there is insulin in the pen prior to injection of insulin and that there are no air bubbles injected. This step should be performed with each injection. To prime the pen, dial to 2 units and push the knob on the insulin pen. A drop of insulin should appear at the end of the needle. If there is no drop at the end, repeat this step.
  7. Clean the desired injection site with an alcohol swab. Possible injection sites include the abdomen, the back of the arms, the thighs and the buttocks.
  8. Dial the pen to the prescribed dose.
  9. Insert the pen needle into the skin at a 90-degree needle. You may choose to pinch the area.
  10. Hold the injection into the site for five to 10 seconds.
  11. Once the injection has been administered, remove the pen needle by taking the cap of the pen needle and using it to unscrew the needle. The pen needle should come off easily. Dispose of the pen needle in a sharps container.

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