While diabetes itself is widespread and well-understood, when you let it go uncontrolled or allow sugar levels to constantly fluctuate, you could be setting yourself up for trouble. In fact, diabetes can make you more susceptible to certain health problems. But by taking charge of your condition, via diet and fitness, you can stop it from snowballing into bigger problems. You could even skirt the following complications arising from diabetes altogether:1
- Heart disease, hypertension/high blood pressure, stroke
- Neuropathy or nerve damage
- Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA)
- Hyperosmolar hyperglycemic nonketotic syndrome
- Kidney disease
- Sexual problems
- Eye problems like glaucoma or cataracts
- Skin problems
Let’s look at each of these in greater detail so you know what to expect and understand why it is so important for you to properly manage your diabetes. Remember, these problems can strike people with type 1 diabetes as well as those with type 2 diabetes.
1. Heart Problems
When you have diabetes, you are about 5 times more likely to develop some form of cardiovascular problem or have a stroke.2 That’s because continuously high levels of glucose in your body from uncontrolled diabetes can cause your arterial walls to be damaged. This makes your blood vessels more prone to developing fatty deposits, a precursor to heart disease. It can also raise your risk of heart attacks.3 Being diabetic is also linked to having higher blood pressure as well as higher cholesterol levels, both of which are risk factors for heart disease and cardiovascular problems.4
2. Eye Problems
Eye problems can result from uncontrolled blood sugar because of the changes in sugar levels affecting the lens in your eye. Some eye complications that may arise from uncontrolled diabetes are as follows.5
- Blurred vision: Your vision may vary depending on your sugar levels.
- Early cataract: Your lens may get cloudy and inflamed due to high sugar levels in the fluid surrounding it.
- Glaucoma: Your optic nerve may get damaged due to increased pressure in your eye.
- Diabetic retinopathy: The blockage, leakage, or damage to blood vessels in the retina could lead to loss of vision, if unchecked.
3. Skin Problems
Skin problems can actually sometimes be a warning sign of diabetes. You are more prone to bacterial and fungal infections when you have diabetes. Some common skin problems caused due to diabetes are as follows.6
- Bacterial infections like boils, styes (infected glands on your eyelid), folliculitis (infection in your hair follicles), nail infections, and carbuncles (deep infections in your skin as well as the tissue beneath it)
- Fungal infections like athlete’s foot, ringworm, itchy vaginal infections, and jock itch
- Itchiness of the legs due to poor circulation
Apart from these conditions, you may also experience skin problems that are generally uncommon among non-diabetics. These may occur to anyone with type 1 or type 2 diabetes (unless specified otherwise), with no clear pattern of who is more susceptible.7
- Diabetic dermopathy: More likely to happen to overweight diabetics, this condition is characterized by light brown, scaly patches on the front of your legs.
- Necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum: Most common among adult women with diabetes, this condition is characterized by raised dull and red patches on the skin that eventually resemble shiny scars with violet edges.
- Diabetic blisters: This condition is marked by the presence of marks that resemble burn blisters. The marks occur on the hands, back of fingers, feet, toes, forearms, and legs.
- Eruptive xanthomatosis: Common among young type 1 diabetic men, this condition causes yellow pea-like firm bumps with a red halo to occur on the feet, legs, arms, back of the hand, and buttocks.
- Acanthosis nigricans: The condition causes brown or tan raised patches on the armpits, groin, side of the neck, elbows, hands, and knees.
- Digital sclerosis: Affecting a third of those with type 1 diabetes, the condition makes the skin waxy, tight, and thick on the back of the hand.
- Disseminated granuloma annulare: The condition raises arc or ring-shaped red or reddish brown patches on the skin.
3. Nerve Damage Or Neuropathy
The small blood vessels in your nerves can be damaged by high glucose levels. You may experience numbness, ulcers on the feet, and tingling or burning pain permeating from your toes or fingers up your limbs. Uncontrolled diabetes may also cause a more severe form of nerve damage called peripheral neuropathy. In this condition, the damaged nerves in your body’s extremities – such as the hands, feet and arms – may cause loss of coordination, shooting pain in the affected areas, and muscle weakness.8
4. Diabetic Ketoacidosis
One way to detect whether your body is in ketosis is to detect whether your breath smells fruity.
When your body doesn’t have enough insulin, it is unable to use glucose as an energy source. Instead, it uses fat to generate energy, which causes certain chemicals called ketones to build up in the urine and blood. This generally affects those with type 1 diabetes but could develop – less commonly though – in those with type 2 diabetes as well. This is largely the result of uncontrolled diabetes and missed medication.9 Diabetic ketoacidosis is a potentially fatal condition and needs urgent medical intervention.
5. Kidney Disease
The combination of nerve and small blood vessel damage can also impact kidney function. Kidney failure affects anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of type 2 diabetics and around 30 percent of type 1 diabetics. Early signs of the problem are weight gain, frequent need to urinate at night, high blood pressure, and ankle swelling. Later, you may also experience appetite loss, nausea, vomiting, fatigue/weakness, muscle cramps, and itching.10
The slowed movement of food as it goes from the stomach into your small intestine is called gastroparesis and diabetes is the leading cause of this problem. It can sometimes stop the movement of food altogether. This happens because of diabetes-related damage to the vagus nerve. This nerve is responsible for stimulating muscle contractions that enable the movement of food through your gastrointestinal tract. It can cause appetite loss, feeling of fullness after eating just a little, nausea, acid reflux, vomiting, bloating, and stomach pain.11
7. Sexual Problems
When your nerves and smaller blood vessels get damaged due to diabetes, your response to sexual stimuli may also be hampered. It can also impact the blood flow to your genitals.
In men with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, this could cause problems such as the following.12.
- Erectile Dysfunction (ED): The chances of diabetic men developing ED is 2 to 3 times higher than other non-diabetic men.
- Retrograde ejaculation: In this condition, the semen goes into the man’s bladder instead of emerging from the tip of the penis during ejaculation. This is often due to nerve damage from poor management of diabetes.
Sexual problems can also affect diabetic women. In one survey, while 42 percent of those with type 2 diabetes said they experienced some form of sexual problem, just 18 percent of those with type 1 diabetes had these issues. These problems include13
- Pain or discomfort during intercourse
- Loss or decline in libido
- Loss or decline in sexual response
- Reduced vaginal lubrication, causing dryness
8. Hyperosmolar Hyperglycemic Nonketotic Syndrome
Hyperosmolar hyperglycemic nonketotic syndrome (HHNS) causes frequent urination, excessive thirst, and dark urine as your body tries to purge the excess sugar via urine. Severe dehydration due to HHNS may cause seizures and coma. It can even be fatal if not checked in time. HHNS tends to be more common in those with uncontrolled type 2 diabetes but can affect anyone with type 1 too. Older people are more prone to this condition.14
9. Difficult Pregnancy
If you are pregnant and are already diagnosed with diabetes, your doctor will work closely with you to monitor your condition through the pregnancy. You will need to watch for signs of abnormally high or very low blood sugar levels (or hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia).15
- Hypoglycemia: You may develop hypoglycemia (abnormally low blood glucose level) if you skip meals, eat too little, or push yourself too much physically. Watch for blurred vision, mood changes, unexplained fatigue.
- Hyperglycemia: You could end up with hyperglycemia (abnormally high blood glucose level) if you don’t eat balanced meals, don’t have your insulin correctly, are physically inactive, are unwell or stressed.
Uncontrolled diabetes during pregnancy can set you up for preeclampsia (where you have a high blood pressure and pass proteins through urine), miscarriage, preterm delivery, or difficulty during delivery. It can also raise your risk of bladder and vaginal infections.16
10. Poor Health In The Infant
Remember, even if you are diabetic, it’s recommended that you breastfeed your baby.
Not keeping your blood sugar in check during pregnancy not just affects you but also affects your newborn, making him or her susceptible to:17
- Macrosomia or very large birth weight or size due to excess insulin reaching the baby
- Hypoglycemia or low blood sugar in the baby soon after he or she is born
Proper Diabetes Management Can Delay And Even Prevent Complications
There are some simple ways to keep your health on track and your diabetes in check.18
- Eat a variety of healthy foods and a balanced diet and keep your blood glucose levels steady. Think whole grain, lean protein, fresh produce, nuts and seeds, and small amounts of healthy fats.
- Eat lots of fiber and cut down fat and salt intake to keep cholesterol levels and blood pressure in check.
- Reduce alcohol intake. Avoid it if you can or have no more than two drinks on any given day.
- Lose some weight. Even a little bit can help. Weight loss around the belly is especially beneficial. This can help bring down blood glucose levels and blood pressure as well as cholesterol levels.
- Exercise at moderate intensity daily for 30 minutes; do 60 minutes a day if you need to lose weight.
- Quit smoking. It raises the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular problems.
Apart from taking these measures to prevent further complications, ensure that you’re regularly screened not just for your blood sugar levels but also for blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, kidney function, and oral and eye health. If you feel that your symptoms are getting worse, consult a medical professional to discuss the best way forward.
|↑1||Complications. American Diabetes Association.|
|↑2||Complications. National Health Service.|
|↑3||Diabetes and your heart. British Heart Foundation.|
|↑4, ↑18||Diabetes – long-term effects. Department of Health & Human Services, State Government of Victoria, Australia.|
|↑5||Eye conditions related to diabetes. Royal National Institute of Blind People.|
|↑6, ↑7||Skin Complications. American Diabetes Association.|
|↑8||Complications. National Health Service.|
|↑9||Diabetic ketoacidosis. U.S. National Library of Medicine.|
|↑10||Diabetes – A Major Risk Factor for Kidney Disease. National Kidney Foundation.|
|↑11||Gastroparesis. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.|
|↑12, ↑13||Diabetes & Sexual & Urologic Problems. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.|
|↑14||Hyperosmolar Hyperglycemic Nonketotic Syndrome. American Diabetes Association.|
|↑15, ↑17||Diabetes During Pregnancy. American Pregnancy Association.|
|↑16||Before Pregnancy. American Diabetes Association.|