Is an Insulin Pen Right for You?

People who have either type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes have the option of using an insulin pen rather than traditional insulin vials and syringes. Discover the type of insulin pen that best fits your needs, then learn how to use it and how to store it.


Thinking About Trying an Insulin Pen?

For decades, taking insulin required a syringe and a vial. Another option for taking insulin began about 20 years ago when the first insulin pen hit the market. Insulin pens, which look like oversize ink pens, generally contain 300 units of one type of insulin or a fixed combination of two insulins. The pen is a convenient, accurate, and discreet way to take insulin.

The ability to quickly and easily deliver a dose of insulin wherever and whenever you need is the pen's biggest advantage. Also, if you lack dexterity in your fingers, an insulin pen might be easier for you to manage than a vial and syringe. "When a person's health plan will cover pens, I try to prescribe them," says cardiologist Steven Nash, M.D., of Manlius, New York. "I think they're much easier to use than syringes."

Insulin pens are also great for traveling because they're small and can be kept at room temperature. "My insulin pen has made taking insulin easier," says Marsha LaClair, 41, of Austin, Texas, who has type 1 diabetes. "I travel frequently, and now packing to manage my diabetes is a breeze."

Reusable and Disposable Pens

Insulin pens fall into two categories: reusable and disposable. Reusable insulin pens use replaceable cartridges filled with insulin; they usually contain 300 units of insulin each. When the cartridge is empty, or if you've stored your pen and cartridge at room temperature for more than 28 days, the cartridge is discarded and a new one is inserted.

The more commonly used disposable pens come prefilled with insulin. When the pen is empty or has been stored at room temperature for more than 28 days, discard the whole pen. However, insulin pens do not come with a needle attached. You need to attach an insulin-pen needle to the end of the pen prior to each injection.

How to Use an Insulin Pen
1. Remove the pen cap and attach the pen needle to the top of the pen.

2. Pens require manual 'priming' before you inject insulin. Prime the pen by dialing in 2 units, and then shoot the insulin into the air. Priming makes sure you have insulin at the very tip of the pen needle when you inject it and not air that might be trapped at the end of the needle.

3. Dial the dose using the dial or dosage knob at the base of the pen. Most pens have a maximum dose that can be dialed, so if your dose exceeds that limit, you'll need to dial and dose twice, giving yourself two injections to receive the correct amount of insulin. You'll need a separate pen for each type of insulin, unless you take a fixed combination of insulin in one pen.

4. Insert the needle, prime the pen, and deliver the insulin by pressing the dose knob. Then hold the pen in your skin. Most pen manufacturers recommend slowly counting to 5 or 10 (depending on the size of the dose) before removing the needle to ensure you get the right amount of insulin.

5. Remove the pen needle from the tip of the insulin pen, reattach the outer cap, and dispose of the needle safely in a sharps container or an empty detergent bottle. Never reuse a pen needle.

Storing Insulin Pens
Store unopened disposable pens or cartridges for the reusable pens in the refrigerator. You can keep the insulin pen you currently use at room temperature for about 28 days.

Costs, Coverage & Features

Reusable Insulin Pens
Most companies offer coupons to offset the cost of reusable pens. Costs for reusable-pen cartridges vary, and many insurance plans cover reimbursement. Contact your insurance company to find out if your plan covers insulin pens and supplies.

Disposable Insulin Pens
Insulin manufacturers Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi all make insulin pens for their insulins or insulin combinations. The most common pens are disposable and deliver in 1-unit increments. If you want to use either a disposable or reusable pen, see if the insulin or fixed combination of insulin you take is available in the type of pen you want to use. If you have questions about your insulin or specific insulin pen, research the company's website or call its toll-free number to ask detailed questions.

Disposable pens usually come in a box of five pens, with 300 units of insulin per pen. Most health plans cover the cost of insulin pens, cartridges, and needles the same way they cover syringes and vials of insulin. Check with your health plan to make sure it covers pens before you decide to try one.

Some insulin pens have unique features beyond whether they're disposable or reusable. For example, if you have poor vision, you can find a pen that displays the dosage with large type. Most pens have audible clicks that verify each insulin unit as you dial your dose. If you're concerned about forgetting how much insulin you've delivered with your pen, the HumaPen Memoir can help -- it records the last 16 doses of insulin it's delivered. If you take small amounts of insulin, you might like to use one of the reusable pens that deliver half-unit increments for more precise dosing.