Nothing says “fun” quite like injecting yourself with insulin (we know it’s our go-to party trick). Kidding, obviously — because insulin injections kinda suck. The good news? They don’t have to suck that bad. In fact, they can be relatively painless if you master some key tricks.
Since a diabetes diagnosis doesn’t really come with an easy-to-read user manual, we put together this step-by-step guide to understanding and performing an insulin injection. Bookmark or print this page now so you’ll always have it on file when ya need it!
Ready, set, inject!
Thanks to advances in modern medicine, there are several ways to get your daily dose of insulin.
Some common options include:
There are pros and cons to each delivery method, including ease of use, cost, and other physical side effects. Chat with your doctor to determine the right method for you.
According to the American Association of Diabetes Educators, an insulin injection needs to be “delivered into the fat layer just under the skin.” This is important, because injecting too deep into the muscle can cause insulin to be absorbed too quickly.
Some of the most common comfortable injection sites are:
- Your abdomen. Choose a spot between the bottom of your rib cage and the top of your hip/pubic bones (almost anywhere in your stomach area). Just leave a 2-inch safety ring around your navel — that area is off-limits.
- The back of your upper arms. Ever get a flu shot? Pretty much anywhere on the back of your arms from shoulder to elbow is fair game.
- Your thigh. This is a favorite of movie directors when filming a dramatic EpiPen revival. The gist is the same for injecting insulin — just do it slowly and carefully (no shrieking or baseball wind-up required) and stick to the top or outer areas.
- Your booty. We know it sounds like a pain in the butt (sorry, we had to), but a booty injection isn’t that bad. Grab those injection materials and back that a** up.
While you might have a favorite spot, it’s important to rotate locations after each injection to avoid complications. You’ll want your next injection site to be at least an inch away from the previous one.
The following instructions are for a traditional needle injection. As a rule of thumb, you should always follow the instructions from your healthcare provider when taking any form of medication.
1. Check your insulin
Remember: You should always double-check that your medication is not expired or discolored and that it’s free of any clumps, which can occur if you’ve been shaking or roughly handling your meds.
2. Wash your hands
Seriously, don’t skip this step. There’s a reason nurses and doctors always wear gloves and sanitize their hands. You’re introducing medication into your body, and that’s it — no bacteria, germs, or viruses.
According to the CDC, washing for 20 seconds with soap and water should do the trick. (Pro tip: That’s roughly the same amount of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.)
3. Prep your tools
Lay out all your injection tools on a clean surface: syringe, alcohol swabs, medication vial, bandages, and a puncture-proof sharps disposal bin (for easy cleanup).
4. Choose an injection site and clean it with an alcohol swab
Remember, you want to use a fatty spot on your body, and it’s always a good idea to rotate so you’re not using the same spot every time.
Pick somewhere that’s free of cuts, bruises, blemishes, and moles. Clean the skin with a swipe of an alcohol swab.
5. Prep the vial and syringe
Remove the caps from the medication vial and the syringe. If you’ve used this medication vial before, give it a quick cleaning with an alcohol swab.
With the needle upright, draw back the plunger until it reaches the measurement of insulin you need to inject — yes, filling it up with air.
6. Fill the syringe
Next, take the air-filled syringe, insert the needle into the medication vial, and push the air into the vial. Doing this helps make the next step — flipping the bottle with the syringe still inside — easier.
Once you’re ready, gently turn the bottle upside down and draw the plunger back to the correct dosage, this time filling the syringe with insulin medication.
Double-check that there are no air bubbles in the syringe (if there are, just gently flick the syringe until the bubbles move up and out). Triple-check that you’ve drawn in the right dose.
7. Time to inject
Breathe. We promise this part gets easier the more often you do it. Find your sanitized injection site and pinch the skin between your pointer finger and thumb.
Position the needle at a 90-degree angle, holding it firmly a few inches away from your skin. Take another deep breath and, as you exhale, insert the needle into your skin in one steady motion.
Inject the medication by pressing down on the plunger until you can’t press any more. Keep the syringe steady as you inject. After you inject, hold the syringe in your skin for 5 seconds, and then gently remove the needle.
8. Patch yourself up
The hard part is over! It’s common to experience some light bleeding after an injection, so place gauze, a cotton ball, or a paper towel over the injection site. When you’re ready, apply a bandage. Then give yourself a high five, ’cuz you did it.
Before you get distracted, remember to take a minute to clean up properly. It’s essential for the safety of yourself and others that you follow proper syringe protocol.
*Do not* put the cap back on the used syringe before throwing it away. This puts you at risk of sticking yourself with the needle. Place every used syringe in a thick, puncture-proof plastic container.
You can get an ideal disposal bin (sometimes called a “sharps bin”) from a pharmacy, online, or wherever you purchase your insulin tools. In a pinch, a laundry detergent bottle with a tight lid can work as a temporary solution.
When the container is nearly full (never overfill a container!), make sure the lid is tightly closed and add a layer of thick tape on the lid so it can’t be reopened. This prevents kids or pets from getting into the container and hurting themselves.
To dispose of the filled container, check with your local department of sanitation for their protocol or check out this handy site for tips and recommendations.
Hopefully, giving yourself that first insulin injection wasn’t too bad. Over time you’ll develop more techniques to make injecting easier.
Here are some tested tips that may help:
- Temperature matters. Experienced injectors agree that room temperature insulin is less painful to inject than cold insulin. Try taking your insulin out of the fridge about 30 minutes before you inject.
- Size matters too. Old-school insulin needles were a whopping 12.7 millimeters long, but new recommendations say shorter needles are just as effective. If you’re not a fan of longer needles, try 8-, 4-, or even 2-mm ones to see if they’re less painful.
Last but not least, you may notice a handful of side effects when you first begin taking insulin injections.
As your body adjusts, it’s normal to see symptoms like:
- weight gain
- low blood sugar levels
- a rash or a lump at the injection site
These symptoms may get better over time as you find the right insulin dose for you and get better at injecting.
The whole process of injecting insulin can feel overwhelming, and while there’s a lot to learn, the biggest thing to know is that you’re not alone.
There are support groups, both in-person and online, where you can discuss ways to make the insulin injection process and managing your condition less painful, less overwhelming, and less impactful your life.