Health Problems with Diabetes

High blood sugar damages your body. Over time, high blood sugar may cause serious health problems in many parts of your body.

What Can Happen?

Arteries that carry blood away from your heart to other parts of your body are called peripheral arteries. When peripheral arteries become narrow from plaque, it is called peripheral artery disease. This disease most often affects your legs and means that your legs no longer get enough oxygen to function well.

Low blood flow to your legs can be painful. You may get a feeling of cramping in your legs when you move that goes away when you rest. This condition is called intermittent claudication

Low blood flow to your legs also increases the chance that you will get ulcers and infections. Ulcers and infections can lead to amputation (the removal of your toes, feet, or lower leg, by surgery).

Signs of Peripheral Artery Disease

One sign of peripheral artery disease is a cramp or pain in your legs when you’re walking that goes away when you stop. If you feel this pain, talk to your doctor and your exercise team. Your exercise team can create an exercise plan for you that does not involve walking (such as cycling or swimming).

What Can I Do?

What Can Happen?

Safety Alert

Learn the signs of a stroke and the signs of a heart attack so you can save your own life or the life of a loved one.

Know the signs of stroke:

  • F for Face: Is it drooping?
  • A for Arms: Can you raise both?
  • S for Speech: Is it slurred or jumbled?
  • T for Time: Call 9-1-1- right away

If you or someone with you experiences these signs, call 9-1-1 or your local emergency number right away. Acting quickly can improve your survival and recovery.

Know the signs of heart attack:

  • P for Pressure
  • A for Anxiety
  • I for Indigestion
  • N for Nausea or vomiting
  • S for Shortness of breath

If you think you are having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 right away.

Source: Heart & Stroke Foundation 2014

Diabetes causes the blood vessels in your heart and brain to collect plaque and become narrow. When arteries become narrow due to plaque, it is called atherosclerosis. Over many years, atherosclerosis can cause a heart attack or stroke.

What Can I Do?

Take the actions listed below to manage your blood sugar, control your blood pressure, and control your cholesterol. These actions can help you avoid a heart attack or stroke:

Talk to your doctor if you have questions about how to take action.

What Can Happen?

Diabetes can damage your eyes and change the way your eyes function. The damage can lead to many eye diseases that cause vision changes and blindness:

  • Retinopathy – damage to the blood vessels in your retina. Your retina is at the back of your eye and is used to sense light. Long term damage to your retina can cause you to go blind.
  • Cataract – cloudiness on the lens of your eye. Your lens is at the front of your eye and is what you see through. Cloudiness on your lens causes you to lose your vision.
  • Glaucoma – a buildup of fluid in your eye that causes pressure. The pressure can damage the nerve going to and from your eye. This nerve damage can cause changes in your vision.

What Can I Do?

What Can Happen?

Nerves send messages to and from your brain and body. Diabetes can damage the arteries that bring oxygen to your nerves. The damage to your arteries can lead to damage to your nerves. Your nerves can also be damaged by harmful substances that are produced when sugar is processed by your body.

One condition caused by nerve damage is peripheral neuropathy. With this condition you lose feeling to your hands and feet. Messages about touch and temperature are sent by nerves from your hands and feet to your brain. If your nerves are damaged, you will lose this feeling.

Many problems can happen in your body when your nerves are damaged:

  • injury to your hands and feet due to loss of feeling
  • your stomach takes longer to digest food
  • problems controlling your blood pressure when changing body positions (such as, from lying down to standing up)
  • you do not notice signs of low blood sugar or heart attack
  • problems getting an erection (called erectile dysfunction)
  • problems with vaginal dryness or reaching orgasm
  • urinary incontinence [leaking urine (pee)] or overactive bladder (having a sudden need to pee)

Signs of Nerve Damage

Check the list below for common signs of nerve damage:

  • numbness, tingling, pain, or burning in your fingers and toes.
  • your heart beats too fast when you are sitting
  • you only feel mild signs or no signs at all of a heart attack
  • you cannot feel common signs of low blood sugar (such as shakiness or nervousness)
  • you are dizzy or feel faint when you stand up
  • you take longer to digest food (you may feel bloated, always full, nauseous, or you may vomit)
  • you have diarrhea (loose, watery poo) or constipation (cannot poo)
  • you have trouble getting an erection
  • you have vaginal dryness or trouble having an orgasm
  • you cannot fully empty your bladder
  • you have urinary tract infections often
  • you cannot sweat or control your body temperature in warm weather

What Can I Do?

  • Control your blood sugar to help prevent or delay nerve damage.
  • Talk to your doctor if you notice any signs of nerve damage listed below:
    • numbness
    • tingling
    • pain
    • burning
    • loss of feeling
  • Check your hands and feet every day for signs of infection. Be aware of what feels normal for you. If you notice any change, talk to your doctor.
  • Learn how your body responds to food.

What Can Happen?

Your kidneys have many blood vessels that act as filters to remove waste from your blood. This waste leaves your body when you pee.

Diabetes can damage the blood vessels in your kidneys. Over time, this damage causes kidney disease (also known as nephropathy).

Your kidneys can be further damaged if you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol. These conditions increase the chance that you will get kidney disease. You may need to take medicines to control your blood pressure and cholesterol to help prevent damage to your kidney.

Signs of Kidney Disease

You may not have signs in the early stages of kidney disease. Get your kidney function tested early.

As kidney disease gets worse (progresses), you may have changes in your health that include:

  • blood pressure that is hard to control
  • feeling very tired (fatigue)
  • feeling weak or dizzy
  • an upset stomach (nausea)
  • changes in your pee
  • cramps
  • swelling of your feet and ankles
  • itchy skin
  • changes in appetite

See your doctor if you have signs of kidney damage

What Can I Do?

What Can Happen?

Diabetes can damage the blood vessels and nerves in your feet. If your blood vessels and nerves are damaged your feet will feel different. You may not be able to feel pain or temperature in your feet. Your feet may feel numb, tingly or burning.

Diabetes can also cause your feet to change shape and size. Your feet will no longer sweat or produce oil. As a result, your skin can become dry and cracked. Dry, cracked skin is more likely to become infected.

An infection can occur in a sore on your foot. Sores on your feet are called foot ulcers. Foot ulcers are often found at the base of your big toe or on the ball of your foot. These ulcers need medical help right away. If foot ulcers are left untreated, a foot ulcer may lead to your toes or your foot being removed (amputation).

It is important to notice any changes to your feet. You are less likely to have infections if you get medical help quickly.

Signs of Foot Problems

Check for these signs.

  • Your feet feel:
    • numb
    • tingling
    • burning
    • pain
  • You have a cut on your foot that will not heal.
  • The skin on your feet is dry or cracked.
  • Your feet change shape and size.

What Can I Do?

If you have any of the signs above then take action:

  • Wash your feet each day with lukewarm water and mild soap.
  • Cut toenails straight across to avoid ingrown toenails.
  • Put lotion on your feet.
  • Check your feet every day. Look for tender spots, sores or cuts.
  • Wear microfiber socks instead of cotton. Microfiber socks will keep your feet dry. They will also lower your chance of blisters and infections.
  • Wear comfortable fitting shoes.
  • Avoid walking around in bare feet.
  • Talk to your doctor if you have a cut that will not heal.
  • Talk to a foot care specialist (chiropodist). They will tell you how to take care of your feet.
  • Get your doctor to check your feet at each visit.

Manage your blood sugar:

What Can Happen?

Your skin covers your whole body. Your skin has 3 main functions:

  1. Protect the inside of your body from the outside environment.
  2. Control your body temperature.
  3. Feeling.

Diabetes changes your skin. Your skin will not work as well if your diabetes is not managed. This makes your skin more likely to be dry, cracked and itchy. Your skin is also more likely to have infections.

Diabetes can put you at a higher risk for gum disease, cavities and sores in your mouth.

What Can I Do?

It is important to manage your diabetes. This can prevent or delay damage your skin and gums.

Maintain good skin care to help prevent infections. Some good skin care tips are:

  • Shower with lukewarm water, a mild soap and mild shampoo.
  • Put lotion on your dry skin (try not to put it between your toes).
  • Check your skin for cracks or sores every day.
  • Go to your doctor right away if you notice cuts, sores or rashes.
  • Keep skin dry.
  • Wear comfortable shoes.
  • Wear clothes that take sweat away from your skin such as, clothes made from man-made microfibers (dry wicking material). Look at your clothing tags for these materials.

If you think you have an infection, talk to your doctor right away.

Maintain good oral care:

  • Brush and floss your teeth daily.
  • Have regular checkups at your dentist (usually 2 times each year).
  • If your gums are red or swollen, talk to your dentist right away.

Tests That Screen for Problems

Screening tests help you find health problems related to diabetes. Use these tests to help find problems early, before they get worse.

What Are the Tests Used For?

Each test below is used to screen for a different problem:

  • A1c test – checks your blood sugar over the last 3 months
  • Neuropathy test – checks your nerves
  • Nephropathy or albumin/creatinine ratio (ACR) test – checks your kidneys
  • Retinopathy test – checks your eyes

Learn more about 4 screening tests below. Ask your doctor for more information about each test.

What does the A1c test measure?

The A1c test uses a sample of your blood to measure your blood sugar control over the last 3 months. The test counts the number of blood cells with sugar. Since your sugar levels can vary from day to day, the A1c test shows an average of your blood sugar level over the past 3 months. The results are shown in percent (%) and can be changed into an average blood sugar.

Red blood cells use sugar (glucose) as their only source of fuel and live up to 120 days (about 4 months). In a blood test, the cells can show the average amount of sugar they were exposed to during their lifetime to give your A1c level.

When is this test done?

The A1c test is done when you find out you have diabetes (when you are diagnosed) and every 3 months after that.

What does the neuropathy test measure?

Your foot doctor (chiropodist) will use a monofilament (an instrument made of a soft nylon fiber) to assess your feet for:

  • numbness
  • vibration
  • light touch
  • reflexes

When is this test done?

The neuropathy test is done when you find out you have diabetes (at diagnosis) and once a year after that. If you have skin changes, see your doctor.

What does the nephropathy or albumin/creatinine ratio (ACR) test measure?

The nephropathy or ACR test checks to see if your kidneys are being damaged by diabetes. Your doctor will ask you to go to a lab to have your blood and urine (pee) tested.

When is this test done?

The albumin or ACR test is done when you find out you have diabetes (at diagnosis) and once a year after that. Talk to your doctor about other kidney tests that can be done to make sure your kidneys are healthy.

What does the retinopathy test measure?

The retinopathy test is done by your eye doctor to check your eyes for signs of damage.

When you have diabetes, it is common to have less blood flow through your blood vessels, including to your eyes. This change in flow can cause blood vessels to grow out of your retina (part of the inside of your eye). This problem leads to a condition called glaucoma. With glaucoma, you have high blood pressure in your eye and fluid drains from your eye. This condition can lead to vision loss and blindness.

When is this test done?

When you find out you have diabetes (at diagnosis) and once a year after that. If you have vision changes, see your doctor.