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Sulfonylurea agent poisoning

Jason Chu, MD
Andrew Stolbach, MD, MPH, FAACT, FACMT, FACEP
Section Editors
Stephen J Traub, MD
Michele M Burns, MD, MPH
Deputy Editor
Jonathan Grayzel, MD, FAAEM


Sulfonylurea agents are commonly used in the treatment of diabetes mellitus. When used appropriately, they promote euglycemia, although hypoglycemia can occur if clearance is impaired or the patient does not eat. Sulfonylureas often cause hypoglycemia with overdose or when ingested by nondiabetic patients.

The hypoglycemic effects of the sulfonamide antibacterial agents were first discovered in the 1940s. The sulfonylurea medications were first used to treat diabetes mellitus type 2 in 1954, and they remain in widespread use today [1]. Sulfonylureas may be used alone when diet control has failed or in combination with other oral drugs.

Patients over 65 years, those taking multiple medications, and those who are frequently hospitalized are at increased risk for hypoglycemia [1,2]. Sulfonylurea-related hypoglycemia may also be seen in the setting of unintentional ingestion. Ingestion of a single sulfonylurea pill (ie, 2 mg) by a toddler can cause hypoglycemia [3,4].

The management of sulfonylurea toxicity will be reviewed here. The therapeutic use of sulfonylureas and other antihyperglycemic agents, the toxicology of other antihyperglycemic agents such as metformin, and the general clinical management of drug intoxication are discussed separately. (See "Sulfonylureas and meglitinides in the treatment of diabetes mellitus" and "Metformin poisoning" and "General approach to drug poisoning in adults".)


Sulfonylurea medications inhibit ATP-sensitive potassium channels in pancreatic beta cell membranes. These potassium channels normally allow for potassium efflux from the cell. Inhibition leads to elevated intracellular potassium levels, which results in depolarization. Depolarization causes calcium influx, which activates the secretory system that releases insulin. Sulfonylureas also promote exocytosis of insulin through distinct mechanisms involving direct binding of pancreatic beta cell receptors. In summary, sulfonylurea medications promote hypoglycemia by increasing the release of endogenous insulin [5-7].

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Nov 03, 2016.
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