Skip to main content
Medically Approved

Diabetes medications: What to know

twitter share buttonfacebook share buttonlinkedin share buttonemail article button
TypesHow they workOral medicationsInjectable medicationsDifferencesOther medicationsLifestyleHealthcare teamSummary
There are two main categories of diabetes medications: oral and injectable. The kind of medication a doctor prescribes will depend on various factors, including the type of diabetes and treatment goals.
Medically reviewed by Jennie Olopaade, PharmD, RPH
Written by Rashida Ruwa, RN
Updated on

Some diabetes medications regulate blood sugar levels. They do this in various ways, like stimulating insulin production or reducing glucose production. 

Other medications act as a substitute for a hormone called insulin, which your body lacks. (Insulin itself is one of these medications.) They help move glucose into cells.

The choice of medication depends on several factors, such as the type of diabetes you have and your treatment goals.

What are the different types of diabetes medications?

Overhead view of adult female practising yoga in an a bright indoor space possibly after getting their diabetes medications right
Jovo Jovanovic/Stocksy United

The two main categories of diabetes medications are oral medications and injectable medications: 

  • Oral diabetes medications: You take these medications by mouth to help regulate blood sugar levels. Some medications stimulate the pancreas to produce more insulin, while others decrease the amount of glucose the liver produces. And other oral medications enhance the body’s response to insulin. 
  • Injectable diabetes medications: These medications are administered through injections, and the most widely used injectable medication is insulin. Apart from insulin, other injectable medications may slow down food digestion, boost the body’s natural insulin production, or reduce glucose production in the liver to regulate blood sugar levels.

How does each work?

Different diabetes medications work in various ways to lower blood glucose levels. 

Oral diabetes medications 

Some oral medications, like sulfonylureas and meglitinides, stimulate the pancreas to produce more insulin. This increase in insulin helps transport glucose from the blood into the cells, lowering blood sugar levels. 

Other oral medications, like metformin (Glumetza), work by reducing the amount of glucose that the liver produces. Additionally, medications called thiazolidinediones, such as pioglitazone (Actos), may improve insulin sensitivity. This allows the body to use insulin more effectively.

Injectable diabetes medications

Injectable diabetes medications, such as insulin, act as a substitute for the hormone insulin when the body does not produce it or when the body needs more of it.

Insulin helps transport glucose from the blood into the cells, which it then stores or uses for energy. This action helps lower blood sugar levels. 

Other injectable medications, like glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists, stimulate insulin production, reduce appetite, and slow digestion. Examples of these medications include semaglutide (Ozempic) and liraglutide (Saxenda).

Oral diabetes medications

Some of the common classes of oral diabetes medications include:


Metformin (Glumetza) is the number one medication for type 2 diabetes under this class of medications. It works by reducing the amount of glucose the liver produces and increasing the body’s sensitivity to insulin.

Metformin (Glumetza) starts to work within a few hours and reaches its maximum effect within 24-48 hours. You typically take it once or twice daily with meals.

Common side effects may include:

  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • abdominal discomfort


Sulfonylureas are a class of medications that directly stimulate the beta cells in your pancreas to release more insulin.

You typically take these medications once or twice daily, depending on the prescribed medication. Glipizide (Glucotrol XL) and glyburide (Glynase) are common examples.

Possible side effects of sulfonylureas may include:

  • low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
  • weight gain
  • gastrointestinal upset

DPP-4 inhibitors

DPP-4 inhibitors work by preventing the loss of incretin hormones. This leads to increased levels of incretins, which encourage the body to produce insulin and release less of the hormone glucagon.

All DPP-4 inhibitors are taken once daily before or after meals. Common examples include sitagliptin (Januvia) and linagliptin (Tradjenta).

Common side effects may include upper respiratory tract infections and headaches.

Injectable diabetes medications

These medications are usually administered through injections, which are often prescribed for people with type 1 or 2 diabetes when oral medications do not work well enough to manage blood sugar.


Insulin is important for people with type 1 diabetes since their bodies do not produce insulin on their own. Healthcare professionals may also offer it to people with type 2 diabetes.

There are different types of insulin, including: 

  • rapid-acting
  • short-acting
  • intermediate-acting
  • long-acting

Each type has a specific duration of action, allowing for better management of blood sugar levels throughout the day.

Glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists 

GLP-1 receptor agonists like exenatide (Bydureon Bcise) and liraglutide (Victoza, Saxenda) mimic the action of the GLP-1 hormone, which stimulates insulin secretion. They also slow down the emptying of your stomach, promoting weight loss. 

GLP-1 receptor agonists work in the body for different amounts of time. Some you can take once daily, while others you can take once weekly. 

If you need help covering the cost of medications, the free Optum Perks Discount Card could help you save up to 80% on prescription drugs. Follow the links on drug names for savings on that medication, or search for a specific drug here.

Pill bottle with text 'Starts at $4'

Free prescription coupons

Seriously … free. Explore prices that beat the competition 70% of the time.

Get free card

How and why do the medications differ per diabetes type?

The choice of diabetes medications can vary depending on whether you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes and how well the medication works for you:

  • Type 1 diabetes: People with type 1 diabetes require insulin injections since their bodies produce little or no insulin. Different types of insulin can mimic the body’s natural insulin production throughout the day.
  • Type 2 diabetes: In type 2 diabetes, the body may not effectively use or produce enough insulin. The initial treatment often involves oral medications and lifestyle changes, but a healthcare professional may introduce injectable medications as the condition progresses or when oral medications do not manage blood sugar well. 

Other medications that may help manage diabetes

In addition to diabetes-specific medications, people with diabetes may need other medications to manage related conditions such as high blood pressure or heart disease, which often accompany diabetes.

A doctor or healthcare professional may prescribe angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs). While they are not specifically meant for managing diabetes, they can be beneficial for people with diabetes who also have high blood pressure or kidney disease, which are common diabetes complications.

Commonly prescribed ACE inhibitors in diabetes management include:

While ARBs include:

Lifestyle adaptations

Managing diabetes effectively requires a comprehensive approach that includes lifestyle adaptations. These may include:

  • Healthy eating habits: Following a balanced diet that is rich in nutrients and low in processed foods can help manage blood sugar levels. Focus on incorporating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats into your meals.
  • Regular physical activity: Regular exercise, such as swimming and brisk walking, can help improve insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar levels. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity and strength training exercises each week.
  • Stress management: Chronic stress can affect blood sugar management. Stress-reducing techniques like deep breathing can help promote relaxation.
  • Adequate sleep: Poor sleep can disrupt blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity. Aim for at least 7 hours of quality sleep by establishing a consistent sleep routine.

Working with a healthcare team

Working closely with a healthcare team is important for effective diabetes management. A healthcare team may include doctors, diabetes educators, dietitians, and other specialists. 

They will guide you in developing a personalized diabetes management plan, including medication choices, lifestyle modifications, and ongoing monitoring. 

Regular communication and follow-up visits with a healthcare team will ensure that your diabetes treatment remains optimal and aligned with your needs.


Various types of diabetes medications are available to regulate blood sugar levels. You can take oral medications or injectable medications like insulin to replace the body’s insulin production. 

In addition to taking prescription drugs, lifestyle adaptations like adopting healthy eating habits and engaging in regular physical activity can help manage diabetes effectively.

Consider speaking with a doctor or healthcare professional to determine which diabetes medication suits your needs. You will likely work with a healthcare team who can help manage the various aspects of your diabetes treatment.

Download the free Optum Perks Discount Card to save up to 80% on some prescription medications.

Article resources