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Complications of Diabetes
Diabetes management can be a pain in every sense of the word, but failing to manage your disease properly can make things much, much worse. Uncontrolled high blood glucose is toxic to your body. Eventually, blood vessels weaken, organs and tissues will start to suffer, and nerves might start to misfire.
The symptoms could be minimal at first, but as your body tries to defend against and deal with the extra sugar, it will begin to malfunction in predictable ways. From skin infections to nerve damage and organ failure, learn about diabetes-specific complications, how they manifest, and what you can do to prevent them.
1. Diabetic Retinopathy
As diabetes advances, the blood vessels in the retina (at the back of the eye) can begin to thicken and grow abnormally. This is the most common eye complication that diabetes brings, and it typically starts with few or no symptoms, then gradually begins to interfere with vision. Any diabetic who fails to control their blood sugar over a long period of time – usually more than 20 years – could develop retinopathy, but those who also have high blood pressure or smoke are at a greater risk.
Include regular eye exams in your diabetes management plan, and don’t ignore any pain in your eyes or blurred vision. The good news is that if it’s caught early, retinopathy could be reversed; unfortunately, it can lead to hemorrhage and blindness if left untreated.
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2. Kidney Disease
Uncontrolled blood sugar will damage blood vessels throughout the body, and once the tiny clusters of vessels in the kidneys (known as glomeruli) lose function, your body won’t be able to filter out waste and toxins as efficiently. Eventually, you could contract kidney disease, or worse, end-stage kidney failure, which will require a transplant or dialysis.
Unfortunately, kidney problems can go undetected for a very long time, because they usually don’t bring any symptoms in the early stages. Aside from controlling blood sugar and keeping blood pressure in check, annual tests of your urine albumin levels can help spot kidney decline early enough to halt, or even reverse, the damage.
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This is one of the most common complications of diabetes – it’s estimated that around 70% of diabetics will eventually experience some symptoms of neuropathy (nerve damage), whether it’s some tingling in the extremities or organ malfunction. Diabetic neuropathy can either be autonomic (damage to the nerves that control organs like the stomach, bladder or brain) or peripheral (pain, burning, or numbness that often begins in the toes). As with other diabetes symptoms, taking control of your blood sugar is the single best way to avoid nerve damage; once you develop neuropathy, you may need to consult with a neurologist to treat the symptoms.
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4. Heart Disease and Blood Vessel Disease
Diabetes dramatically increases your risk of developing cardiovascular problems, and heart disease is a leading killer among diabetics who fail to control their condition. Sometimes the warning signs are clear, like angina (pain in the chest), shortness of breath, or problems with circulation in the legs. Other times, cardiovascular symptoms are quiet until a big event, like a heart attack or stroke, occurs.
In either case, one important fact remains: diabetics are twice as likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke as non-diabetics, and that makes it important to take extra precautions. Good blood sugar control is vital to avoid heart disease, but so are quitting smoking and maintaining a healthy weight.
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5. Gum Disease
Swelling, redness, and pain in the gums isn’t normal – it could mean that your diabetes has spiralled out of control. Diabetics are already more susceptible to periodontal disease for a few reasons: they have more plaque, higher amounts of sugar in the mouth, and poor circulation in the gums. Bleeding is often the earliest symptom, but you should also look out for sensitive spots, a receding gum line, and discoloration, and don’t delay your trip to the dentist if you notice any of these changes. Fortunately, gum disease is usually preventable with careful dental hygiene and good blood sugar control.
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6. Foot Problems
After living with diabetes for a long time, your blood doesn’t circulate as well, and your feet may begin to suffer the consequences. Irritation, cuts that are slow to heal, and infections can result when the blood vessels thicken and the nerves are damaged; a wound that goes unnoticed for long enough can lead to a serious bacterial infection, and may require the foot or leg to be amputated.
Get into the habit of cleaning and inspecting your feet frequently – at least once a day – and always wear comfortable, well-fitting footwear. The better you can prevent blisters, corns, callouses, and sores in the first place, the better your chances of avoiding more complicated foot problems.
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7. Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia
Since diabetes can affect every system in the body, it should come as no surprise that brain activities like memory, problem solving, and speech can suffer. Not only can an excess of blood sugar damage the blood vessels in the brain and lead to cell death (vascular dementia), it also appears to affect your chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, recent research suggests that diabetes and Alzheimer’s share some common markers (like insulin resistance at the cellular level), and some experts believe Alzheimer’s is actually a form of diabetes.
Better blood sugar control is the best way to ward off either type of brain condition, and be sure to speak to your doctor about any family history of dementia.
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8. Skin Conditions
Diabetics are prone to a variety of skin troubles, and while many of them are mild and easy to treat, some will demand quick and close attention. Bacterial infections are common, as are fungal infections general skin itch, so be sure to report any visible symptoms or changes in sensation to your doctor. However, more serious diabetic skin disorders can be even more worrisome, like allergic reactions or necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum (NLD), where shiny sores develop and may break open, setting the stage for infection. The good news is that most skin conditions can be prevented with good blood sugar control, losing some excess weight, and a careful daily skin care regimen.
Diabetes complications are more prevalent in older people who have lived with their disease for years, and have veered away from their recommended lifestyle changes. As with most diseases, how you live your daily life will play a big part in determining your risk for life-threatening complications, which means your blood sugar control should always be your top priority.
In many cases, you won’t be able to do this all on your own – work with your doctor, neurologist, nutritionist, and a support group to help you get on track and stay on track to a healthier, more comfortable future.
Read more about maintaining good diabetes management to avoid complications over at NewLifeOutlook.