Learning About Insulin Pens

What is an insulin pen?

An insulin pen is a device for giving insulin shots. It looks like a pen. You can set the dose of insulin with a dial on the outside of the pen. You use the pen to give the insulin shot (injection). Both disposable and reusable insulin pens are available.

With a disposable pen, a set amount of insulin comes in the pen ready to use. When the insulin is used up, you throw the pen away. You use a new pen the next time you need insulin.

With a reusable pen, you don't throw the pen away. Instead, you reload the pen with a pre-measured cartridge of insulin. When the insulin is used up, you insert a new cartridge into the pen.

Disposable and reusable pens both need a new needle with each shot. The needles come in different lengths and widths. Shorter needles will prevent injecting into the muscle, especially in children or people who are lean. Thinner-width needles reduce the pricking sensation. Width is measured by gauge. The higher the number, the thinner the needle.

Why do some people prefer pens?

  • Most people find that insulin pens are easier to use than a bottle and syringe.
  • Many people feel less pain (or no pain) with the smaller insulin pen needle, compared to a syringe needle.
  • Insulin pens may help you give yourself more accurate doses. When you draw insulin into a syringe, you must carefully measure so that you don't get too much or too little. But with a pen, you set a dial for the amount of insulin you want, and then you push the button.
  • Insulin pens may work better than syringes for people who don't see well or who have problems like arthritis that make it harder to use a syringe.
  • Using an insulin pen draws less attention from others. You can give yourself insulin with fewer people noticing.
  • You don't need to carry insulin bottles and syringes everywhere you go. An insulin pen fits into a pocket or purse.

What should you know about insulin pens?

Each pen delivers a different brand and type (or types) of insulin. Some deliver rapid-acting insulin. Others deliver long-acting insulin. And some pens deliver a mixture of both in one shot.

Pens have different coloured labels, cartridge holders, or dosing knobs. Many pens have special features. For example, some pens have springs so that it takes less force to deliver a dose of insulin. Other pens have signals you can hear that let you know the insulin has been delivered. Some have memory to show the amount and time of the last dose.

How do you use an insulin pen?

  1. For a reusable pen, put the insulin cartridge into the pen. Disposable pens already have an insulin cartridge. Follow the directions for how to screw a new needle onto your pen. Before using cloudy insulin, such as NPH and premixed insulin, gently roll the pen between your palms 10 times, then tip the pen up and down 10 times. Do not shake the pen. The insulin should look milky white.
  2. Remove the outer cap from the needle. Keep this cap to use later.
  3. Remove the inner cover from the needle. Be careful not to prick yourself.
  4. Before each shot, prime the needle. Priming removes air from the needle. Turn the dose knob to 2 units. Hold your pen with the needle pointing up. Tap the cartridge holder gently to move any air bubbles to the top. Push the injection button all the way in. Watch for a stream or drop of insulin to come out of the needle. If it does not, repeat this step again.
  5. Clean the area of skin where you will give the shot. If you use alcohol to clean the skin, let it dry. Use a different spot each time you inject insulin. That's because using the same spot every time can cause bumps or pits to form in the skin. For example, inject your insulin above your belly button, then the next time use your upper thigh, and then the next time inject below your belly button.
  6. Turn the dose knob to the number of units of insulin you need to inject. Push the needle into your skin. Most people can inject using a 90-degree angle and without pinching the skin. Adults and children who are very lean and people who use longer needles may need to pinch the skin to avoid injecting into muscle.
  7. Put your thumb on the injection button and push it in until it stops. Keep the pen in your skin. Hold the dose knob in for 10 seconds (or to the number that the manufacturer recommends). Then pull the needle out of your skin. Do not rub the area.
  8. Put only the outer cap back over the needle. The thin inner cover is harder to put back on, and you could stick yourself.
  9. After covering the needle with the outer cap, unscrew the needle and throw it away in a sharps container or other solid plastic container. You can get a sharps container at your drugstore.
  10. Always read the insulin package information that tells the best way to store your insulin pen and insulin cartridges. In general, unopened insulin for pens will last longer if it is kept in the refrigerator. After insulin is opened, most manufacturers say to store it at room temperature.

Don't share insulin pens with anyone else who uses insulin. Even when the needle is changed, an insulin pen can carry bacteria or blood that can make another person sick.

Is it an emergency?

If you or someone in your care has chest pains, difficulty breathing, or severe bleeding, it could be a life-threatening emergency. Call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number immediately.
If you are concerned about a possible poisoning or exposure to a toxic substance, call Poison Control now at 1-800-567-8911.

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