diabetes complications
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Expert-reviewed by Ashwini S.Kanade, Registered Dietician and Certified Diabetes Educator with 17 years of experience

Diabetes is characterised by high blood sugar levels; if left unchecked, this can lead to a range of issues from minor skin and eye complications to an increased risk of stroke and nerve damage.

Read on to find out what these problems are and how they can be prevented and treated.

How does diabetes affect the body?

Diabetes is essentially a metabolic disorder. The presence of high levels of sugar (hyperglycemia) as well as insulin (because of insulin resistance) in the blood affects the levels of other substances, that in turn cause structural or functional damage to the body. But this also means that keeping sugar levels in control would help prevent most of these complications or at least keep them at bay for a much longer time.

Which parts of the body are affected?

1. Eye:

Hyperglycemia can cause blurry vision in the short term and cataract in the long term. A severe condition affecting the eye is called diabetic retinopathy, in which the retina starts getting damaged and, in severe cases, can even lead to blindness. Diabetic retinopathy occurs in 20% to 40% of individuals with type 2 diabetes.(1)

Treatment and prevention:

Fortunately, regular eye checkups can detect most of these problems extremely early. Treatment options include laser photocoagulation or a surgery. Good sugar and blood pressure management are essential to decrease the risk of eye complications. 

2. Skin:

Skin infections are quite common in people with diabetes, and probably one of the most ignored. As many as 30% develop skin conditions,(2) of which skin infections (bacterial/fungal), dry skin, skin tags (tiny, soft skin growths) and dark wart-like growths (known as seborrheic keratosis) are the most common.

Check out these early symptoms of diabetes-related complications that you might be missing out.

Treatment and prevention:

While taking a shower, notice for any changes in the skin, and visit a doctor to get an early treatment. Long-standing diabetes may dull sensations in your hands and feet, so it is essential to check for this actively. Blood sugar management and good hygiene go a long way. 

3. Kidney:

Diabetes is a major cause of kidney disease, particularly kidney failure. In fact, approximately 7% of individuals with type 2 diabetes may already have early stage kidney disease by the time they are diagnosed with diabetes.(3) Disturbances in lipid metabolism or, in other words, high cholesterol—specifically, high triglycerides and low HDL—have been implicated in kidney disease.

Treatment and prevention:

Regular checkups (for instance, urine test for proteins) help in early diagnosis. Diet and exercise help improve cholesterol status (the lipid profile). Avoiding smoking helps maintain normal blood flow to the kidney. Read our article for details on preventing kidney disease.

4. Heart and blood vessels:

Along with hyperglycemia, people with diabetes are also likely to have high cholesterol and/or high blood pressure. These individually, or in combination, can clog or harden blood vessels. This can lead to heart attack or other heart problems, and even stroke. People with diabetes have a much higher risk of stroke than those who don’t have diabetes.(3) Blood supply to the foot and to the nerves themselves might be affected, leading to nervous system problems.(3)

Treatment and prevention:

Several factors can decrease the risk of heart problems and stroke, such as rigorous blood sugar management, no smoking, minimal alcohol intake, healthy diet, exercise, and well-managed blood pressure. Here are some tips to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

5. Nervous system and the foot:

Over the long term, unchecked diabetes can damage the nerves (neuropathy). As a result, sensations in certain parts of the body, especially the hands and the feet, get dampened or completely lost (tingling sensation or numbness); this can lead to foot ulcers and infections, for example, which in severe cases require amputation. Nerve damage can cause other problems such as sexual (erectile) dysfunction, exercise intolerance and increased heart rate even while resting.(3)

Treatment and prevention:

Blood sugar management is the main preventive and treatment strategy, and there are specific medicines available. It is easy to ignore feet, but regular foot care is essential.

Do you really need those expensive diabetes-socks for your foot-care routine? Find out.

6. Gut:

The gut is affected by diabetes indirectly due to damage to the nerves that maintain its normal function. Symptoms include constipation or diarrhoea and feeling nauseous or full after eating only a little food (gastroparesis).(3)

Treatment and prevention:

Preventing neuropathy will also prevent any gut symptoms.

7. Mouth:

High blood sugar, poor oral hygiene and smoking are the main reasons for tooth decay, gum disease, oral infections, and other diseases of the mouth. If nerves are affected, the taste sensation may be blunted and your mouth may feel dry.(4)

Treatment and prevention:

Effective blood sugar management, good hygiene, and smoking cessation are imperative for preventing oral diseases or getting them treated early. Regular visits to the dentist help.  For more oral-health tips for people with diabetes, click here.

8. Infections:

Individuals with diabetes are at an increased risk of bacterial and fungal infections—infections of the skin, mouth, urinary tract (especially in women), lungs and respiratory tract, and these infections tend to come back after treatment.(5) This is due partly to increased blood sugar and to a slightly reduced immunity in people with diabetes.

Treatment and prevention:

As with other complications, blood sugar management, avoidance of smoking, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle are crucial to preventing infections or their recurrence.

References:

  1. Nentwich MM, Ulbig MW. Diabetic retinopathy-ocular complications of diabetes mellitus. World journal of diabetes. 2015;6(3):489.
  2. Goyal A, Raina S, Kaushal SS, Mahajan V, Sharma NL. Pattern of cutaneous manifestations in diabetes mellitus. Indian journal of dermatology. 2010;55(1):39.
  3. Fowler MJ. Microvascular and macrovascular complications of diabetes. Clinical diabetes. 2008;26(2):77-82.
  4. Al-Maskari AY, Al-Maskari MY, Al-Sudairy S. Oral manifestations and complications of diabetes mellitus: a review. Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal. 2011;11(2):179.
  5. Muller LM, Gorter KJ, Hak E, Goudzwaard WL, Schellevis FG, Hoepelman AI, Rutten GE. Increased risk of common infections in patients with type 1 and type 2 diabetes mellitus. Clinical infectious diseases. 2005;41(3):281-8.

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