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When diabetes gets complicated

The far-reaching, collateral damage the disease causes if left untreated


The American Diabetes Association (ADA) estimates that 29 million people with diabetes are in the United States and 8 million of those people are living with the disease undiagnosed.

“Living with undiagnosed or poorly managed diabetes is particularly dangerous,” said Dr. Catherine Rolih, an endocrinologist with Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center. “Diabetes increases your risk for a lot of very serious health problems.”

From head to toe, the list of possible diabetes complications is a long one, but with help from your doctor, it doesn’t have to be so scary, Rolih said.

“The good news is that with treatment and lifestyle changes, many people are able to offset or delay many of the most severe complications,” she said.

Here are some of the most common diabetes-related complications and ways that patients can help prevent them.

Eyes. According to the ADA, people with diabetes are 40 percent more likely to develop glaucoma, or increased eye pressure, and 60 percent more likely to develop cataracts, a condition that clouds the lens of the eye. They are also at risk to develop diabetic retinopathy, which is caused by damage to the blood vessels in the eye. All three conditions can result in vision loss in their most severe stages. “It’s important for patients with diabetes to make an annual eye doctor visit part of their overall care plan, and to make note of any major changes to their vision,” Rolih said.

Skin. Common skin infections, including styes, boils and fungal infections, are more likely to affect people with diabetes than those without, but being diabetic can cause some unique skin issues as well. “Elevated blood sugar levels stiffen the arteries and narrow blood vessels, which makes it harder for the body to deliver the nutrients needed to heal wounds. Because of this, wounds of all kinds, even minor cuts and blisters, can take much longer than normal to heal,” Rolih explained. “On top of that, the immune system of people with diabetes is often compromised, making it harder to fight off infections that might form in open wounds.” To help prevent these conditions, keep skin clean and dry. Avoid products that may dry or irritate the skin, and moisturize if any areas feel chapped or itchy. Always treat even minor cuts immediately to prevent infection.

Heart. Nearly 1 in 3 American adults have high blood pressure, but for people with diabetes the risk increases to two out of every three people. While high blood pressure doesn’t cause any external symptoms, it does put patients at an increased risk for both heart attack and stroke. “In many people, blood pressure can be controlled with lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, reducing sodium and alcohol intake, eating whole grains and quitting smoking if you’re a smoker,” Rolih said. “If you’ve made these changes and you’re still struggling with your blood pressure, your doctor may prescribe certain medications to help get it back within the normal range.”

Kidneys. The kidneys’ job is to filter waste out of the blood. When blood sugar levels are too high, it puts additional strain on the filters, allowing excess protein to slip through and, when left untreated, the kidneys may lose function completely. “This is one of the reasons why keeping your blood sugar levels within their target range is vitally important,” Rolih explained. “Lowering high blood pressure if you have it can also reduce your risk of developing kidney disease as your diabetes progresses.”

Feet. The ADA reports that people with diabetes are far more likely than people without diabetes to require the amputation of a foot or leg. That’s because diabetes can cause peripheral arterial disease, a narrowing of the blood vessels in the legs that reduces blood flow to the feet. Many people with diabetes also have nerve disease, which reduces sensation. Together, these problems make it easy to get ulcers and infections that may lead to amputation. “If you have diabetes, try not to walk barefoot and check your feet every day for cuts, swelling, blisters and callouses,” Rolih said. “Also, make sure to report any leg pain or difficulty walking to your doctor.”

Early diabetes symptoms include feeling very thirsty and urinating often; extreme fatigue; blurry vision; and tingling, pain or numbness in hands and feet. If you regularly experience any of these, you should consult with your doctor, according to Rolih.

“Ask your doctor to do an A1C screening at your next yearly physical,” Rolih said. “This simple blood test measures your average blood glucose levels over the last two to three months, and is one of the simplest ways to detect diabetes and prediabetes, even before the patient shows any symptoms.” 

To find a free health screening near you, along with tips to better manage diabetes, visit NovantHealth.org/RemarkableYou.





Published: 11/11/2015