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Diabetes Medications 101: Insulin, Medicines, & Other Diabetes Treatments

In addition to lifestyle changes including healthy eating and exercise, diabetes may be managed by the use of oral, insulin and/or non-insulin injectable medications. Your provider may prescribe one or more medications that work to reduce blood glucose, as well as delay or prevent complications associated with diabetes. For some people with diabetes, a physician may prescribe pills and insulin, while for others the prescription may be insulin only.

A number of available diabetes medicines can help patients control their blood glucose.

ClassGeneric/Brand NameWhere They WorkSide Effects1Comments
Oral Medications
Alpha-glucosidase inhibitorsAcarbose/Precose®StomachBloating, gas, diarrhea, stomach painTake with food
BiguanidesMetformin/Glucophage®LiverNausea, diarrhea usually up to 2 weeks; decreased appetiteTake with food
DPP-4 InhibitorsSitagliptin/Januvia®
Pancreas, Muscle, StomachStuffy nose, Upper respiratory, infection, sore throat, joint pain 
PancreasLow blood glucose, weight gainTake up to 30 minutes before each meal; DO NOT TAKE IF SKIPPING A MEAL
SGLT-2 InhibitorsCanaglifozin/Invokana®
KidneysUrinary tract infection, low blood pressure, increased urinationTake with your first meal of the day
PancreasLow blood glucose, weight gainTake with food; DO NOT TAKE IF SKIPPING A MEAL
ThiazolidinedionesPioglitazone/Actos®Liver, Muscle, FatWeight gain, swelling, bone fractureMay take up to 12 weeks to see effect on blood glucose
Non-Insulin Injectables
GLP-1 agonistsExenatide/Byetta®
Exenatide XR/Bydureon®
Pancreas, Liver, StomachNausea, diarrhea, weight lossMay have injection site irritation; May require refrigeration

1Side effects vary among individuals and may not occur in everyone

It is important to understand the medicines that you have been prescribed and how they should be taken. Make sure that you ask your doctor, pharmacist and/or diabetes educator the following questions:

  • How frequently do I take each medication and at what time of day?
  • Should I take my medicine on an empty stomach or after a meal?
  • How many pills do I take?
  • Are there any side effects associated with this medication? What should I do if I experience them?
  • What should I do if I forget to take my medication? Should I skip a dose or take the medicine as soon as I remember?
  • Are any of the current medications I am taking going to interact and potentially cause problems with my diabetes medicine?

Over-the counter medications such as vitamins and herbal products may interfere with your prescription medications, so be sure to inform your provider of additional medications you may be taking. Both prescription and over-the-counter medications may also interfere with other complications related to your heart, bones and other vital organs, so it is important to know that your provider will choose the best medication for your overall health status.

Do not stop taking your medications unless the doctor tells you to do so. If you ever have questions about your medication or experience side effects, call your doctor or pharmacist. While medicines do a great deal to help control your glucose levels, they work best when paired with healthy lifestyle choices including a healthy diet and exercise.

Taking Your Medication

  • In general, always take your medication at the same time every day
  • Use a pill box/organizer to keep you on track and establish a routine
  • Don’t stop or skip a dose without consulting your provider first
  • If you miss a dose, take it as soon as possible but never double up on your medications

Overall medication tips:

  • Know the name of your medication(s)
  • Keep a list of your medications, including over-the-counter drugs, and update it as needed
  • Refill your medications before you run out
  • Follow directions and take medications as prescribed
  • Store medications appropriately in a dry place at room temperature, unless refrigeration is required

Medication Myths and Facts


“I feel ok, so I don’t need to take my medication.”


Taking your medications as prescribed plays an important role in their effectiveness and your overall health status over time.


“Only brand medications work.”


Generic medications are required to have the same active ingredients as the brand medications. Generic drugs may cost less but are not inferior.


“Expired Medications are safe to use”


Expired medications may be not only ineffective but also harmful to your health.


“I can use my friend’s medication because we have the same medical condition.”


Medications are prescribed for specific individuals and their conditions. Using another person’s medication may lead to under- or over-dosing, interference with other drugs or unwanted side effects.


“My provider knows what medications are covered by my insurance plan.”


Providers do not know what is covered under your specific insurance plan. Providers prescribe medications based on your medical condition, current medications and your overall health status


Insulin is required for people with type 1 diabetes and may be recommended for people with type 2 diabetes. The amount of insulin injected should be based on an individual’s glucose readings, meal plan and activity level. If your health care provider prescribes insulin to control your glucose, you will receive information regarding the type of insulin you need and injection instructions.

Common side effects of insulin include weight gain and hypoglycemia (low blood glucose). It is important to adhere to the provider-proposed meal plan and monitor your blood glucose levels regularly to reduce and/or prevent side effects.

Insulin is available in forms that range from rapid-acting to long-acting, plus a number of combination forms.

TypeGeneric/Brand NameWhen to UseComments
Rapid-ActingAspart/ Novolog®
15 minutes before a mealAfrezza (inhalation only)
Short-ActingHumulin R
Novolin R*
30 minutes before a mealUsed for glucose control before meals
Intermediate-ActingHumulin R
Novolin R*
12 hours apart is most optimalUsed for glucose control before meals
Levemir Flex Touch®
1 to 2 times a dayUse for glucose control before meals

*Available without a prescription

NOTE: People on Insulin should follow provider instructions for all insulin regimens

Insulin tips:

  • Follow injection technique instructions and rotate insulin injection sites
  • Talk to a healthcare professional before mixing insulins
  • Do not reuse insulin lancets, pen needles or syringes
  • Do not share insulin pens, lancets, pen needles or syringes
  • Store insulin properly and watch expiration dates
  • Dispose of lancets, pen needles and syringes properly

The information presented on this page is educational and not intended as medical advice or the practice of medicine. Specific aspects of your outcomes and care should be addressed and answered after consultation with your physician.