The FreeStyle Libre is a type of continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) system that doesn’t require a blood sample from a finger stick. It’s manufactured by Abbott, a well-known company that produces other diabetes-related products, as well as nutritional beverages and baby formula.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the FreeStyle Libre in 2017 for adults only. Since then, newer versions of the monitor have been produced for adults and children with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
FreeStyle Libre pros
- no blood sample required
- doesn’t need a finger stick
- painless sensor application process
- convenient for travel, work, and other instances when you’re on the go
- track glucose trends on your smartphone via an app you download after purchasing the system (available with some models)
- more affordable than other glucose monitors
- waterproof sensor for short periods of swimming and bathing in a few feet of water
FreeStyle Libre cons
- may cause irritation at the sensor insertion site
- the original version doesn’t alert you if your blood glucose levels are off until you actively check them (alerts are a feature with the Libre 2)
- results may not be as accurate as a traditional blood calibration system
- the sensor doesn’t actually measure glucose in the blood, but in the cellular fluids instead
- you must have a prescription for the monitor, as it can’t be purchased over the counter at big-box stores
When the FreeStyle Libre was approved by the FDA in 2017, it was considered the first ever non-blood calibration CGM system. This means you don’t have to use a finger stick to provide a blood sample.
Instead, the monitor works via a small sensor that’s placed just below the surface of your skin. To get your glucose reading, you need to place the accompanying screen monitor above the system.
Each sensor lasts up to 14 days. After this time, you’ll need to replace it with a new one. You must continue to purchase new sensors, but you only have to buy the monitoring system once. The monitor itself runs on rechargeable batteries.
To set up the FreeStyle Libre, you must first insert the sensor into your upper arm with an applicator that’s included with the set. The sensor itself is about the size of a coin and is applied just underneath the top layer of your skin. This process is said to be painless, but some users experience mild skin irritation.
Instead of checking your glucose several times a day with a finger stick, you wave the monitor above the sensor in your skin to check your levels anytime you wish.
Since the FreeStyle Libre doesn’t have any automatic alerts when your blood glucose is at dangerous levels, it’s important to set reminders to help you remember to check your monitor regularly. You should check your levels at least every 8 hours.
The original FreeStyle Libre allowed users to wear the sensor wire for up to 10 days before switching it out. Now, you can wear it for up to 14 days at a time.
Like traditional blood glucose monitors, the FreeStyle Libre gives you information about your sugar levels. It can indicate either hyperglycemia, where your glucose levels are too high, or hypoglycemia, where your levels are too low.
When used over time, this monitor can also help you see patterns in your blood sugar levels. For example, you may notice they’re stabilizing, or perhaps trending upward or downward. Such information is crucial to share with your doctor to help determine your diabetes treatment plan.
Some promising studies point to the FreeStyle Libre’s connections to a reduced risk of diabetes complications.
For example, a 2020 study found a 52 percent decrease in hospital visits for ketoacidosis in people with type 1 diabetes, as well as a 47 percent decrease in those with type 2 diabetes.
Despite their approval, the FDA still notes there are some risks associated with the FreeStyle Libre. These include:
- skin irritation from where the sensor wire is inserted
- potential for false readings
- possible spikes or falls in blood glucose that aren’t detected until you wave the monitor in front of the sensor
- the possibility of blood glucose issues during sleep, in which the system won’t alert you (unless you’re using the Libre 2)
Overall, users appreciate the functionality and ease of use of the FreeStyle Libre. However, there have been reports of unusual fluctuations in glucose readings, especially during the last day of the sensor’s life.
The FreeStyle Libre provides freedom from taking frequent blood samples throughout the day via finger sticks.
You may find the FreeStyle Libre easier to use if you have to travel. This CGM is also waterproof for up to 30 minutes at a time, so you don’t have to worry about the sensor getting destroyed after a quick swim, shower, or bath. Avoid submerging the sensor beyond a few feet of water.
However, this blood glucose monitor may not be right for all users. Given that there are concerns with the accuracy, your doctor may recommend a traditional blood glucose monitor if your condition causes frequent glucose spikes or crashes.
You may also consider having a backup monitor with traditional blood testing in case you experience symptoms of hypoglycemia that the FreeStyle Libre isn’t showing.
Note that the FreeStyle Libre isn’t approved for people on dialysis or pregnant women.
Once you purchase the entire system, you only need to purchase replacement sensors. Keep in mind that each sensor lasts for 14 days.
You’ll need a prescription from your doctor to purchase the FreeStyle Libre. With private insurance, it’s estimated that the monitor costs between $10 and $75 per month. This would equal to about two 14-day sensors.
The monitor is also covered by Medicare, though you may still experience some out-of-pocket costs for your diabetes care.
Aside from ease of use, the FreeStyle Libre has a lower cost than other CGMs on the market.
The FreeStyle Libre is sold at pharmacies and medical supply stores. It’s not available for purchase on e-commerce stores or at big-box stores without a prescription.
Another popular non-finger-stick CGM on the market is the Dexcom G6. The sensors for this system lasts 10 days, but it costs more than the FreeStyle Libre. Another key difference is that the monitor continuously sends glucose data to your smartphone every 5 minutes.
Other technologies are also expected in the future, such as a laser technique known as Raman spectroscopy.
Depending on your diabetes treatment plan and current health, your doctor may recommend a traditional blood-calibrating CGM that requires finger sticks.
The FreeStyle Libre is a a type of blood glucose monitor that doesn’t require blood samples or finger sticks. Rather, the readings are based on a sensor you wear on your arm continuously for up to 14 days at a time.
You can check your glucose levels at any time, but you should do so at least every 8 hours. You can do this by waving the monitor in front of your sensor.
While the FreeStyle Libre is perhaps easier — and more affordable — than other types of glucose monitors, it may not be right for every person with diabetes. The system carries the risk of inaccurate readings, and it doesn’t automatically alert you if your glucose is at a dangerous level.
Talk with your doctor about the FreeStyle Libre, as well as other options. They can help determine which system is right for you.