Many long-term complications with diabetes are strongly related to high blood sugar (glucose) levels. By keeping your blood sugar as close to normal as possible, you may lower your chances of developing the following1:
- heart disease or stroke
- frequent infections
- eye complications
- kidney disease
- nerve damage
These are truly serious problems and are scary to hear about. But knowing about possible damage from diabetes, and taking positive action, can help you cope with your fears.
Diabetes can damage the very small blood vessels in the eye, affecting your ability to see. This is called diabetic retinopathy. With these eye complications, at first you may notice no changes to your vision. But over time, diabetic retinopathy may get worse and can cause vision loss. Fortunately, your doctor can easily diagnose diabetic retinopathy even in its early stages. That’s why it’s important to have a comprehensive exam every year. These eye complications can be treated if they are discovered in their early stages.
Diabetes can also damage the small blood vessels in the kidneys. This type of kidney damage is called nephropathy, and has few early signs except high blood pressure and microalbuminuria.
When this condition occurs:
- Waste products are kept in the body instead of leaving with the urine.
- Important nutrients like protein that should stay in the body are flushed away.
- Wastes continue to build up in the bloodstream.
If the damage continues, the kidneys may fail completely.
If your kidneys fail, you must depend upon a special filtering machine, called a dialysis machine, to remove impurities from your bloodstream. However, kidney damage can be found at an early and treatable stage with simple office testing that detects small amounts of protein in the urine. This test is called a microalbumin screen. A second test to check kidney function is a blood test called serum creatinine. You should have both of these tests done at least once a year.2
Nerve damage is also called neuropathy. When blood sugar is too high, nerve cells swell and scar. In time, the nerves lose their ability to send signals through the body the way they should. This can lead to symptoms which may come and go. Some examples are:
- burning pain, numbness, tingling, or loss of feeling in the feet or lower legs, especially at night
- problems in sexual function in both men and women
- changes in stomach and bowel function
The following can happen to your feet:
When nerves are damaged, an injury to the foot may not cause pain. With no pain to warn of the injury, the foot can become badly infected before the problem is discovered. Because of poor blood flow and high blood sugar (hyperglycemia), the body is less able to fight the infection and heal the injury. In very serious cases, it may be necessary to amputate the foot or the limb.
In most cases, proper care of your feet can prevent the need for any surgery. This is why it’s so important to protect your feet—especially when you exercise—and check them daily for any sign of a complication. Read more about foot care and learn some important tips.
There are treatments for painful neuropathy, so be sure to tell your doctor or diabetes educator if you have any of the above painful symptoms.
Heart disease or stroke
Heart disease and strokes are a major cause of death in people with type 2 diabetes.1 People with diabetes have an increased risk for heart disease and strokes because of:
- abnormal levels of blood fats (lipids)
- high blood pressure
Talk to your healthcare provider about how to reduce your risk of heart disease.
High blood sugar levels can reduce the body’s ability to fight off many kinds of infections, including the flu or pneumonia. Check with your doctor about getting a flu and pneumonia vaccine.
People with diabetes are more prone to developing:
- skin infections
- bladder infections
- vaginal yeast infections
- tooth and gum infections
Reduce your risk: The good news is that good blood sugar management has been shown in studies to help lower your risk of many complications. However, to help reduce your risk, you should also eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise, and work with your healthcare provider to control your blood pressure and lipid levels. Talk to your healthcare team for more information about health complications and what you can do to help reduce your risk.