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16th January, 20216 min read

What are the health risks for people with diabetes?

What are the health risks for people with diabetes?
Medical reviewer: Dr Ann Nainan
Author: Ana Mosciuk
Last reviewed: 30/12/2020
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our editorial policy

Everyone needs sugar – it’s what gives us energy. When you eat or drink, your body breaks down carbohydrates into a sugar called glucose, and this goes into your bloodstream.

If you have diabetes, however, the level of sugar in your blood is too high. It is estimated that 1 in 11 adults worldwide is living with diabetes, and the numbers are rising.

Diabetes Diabetes

Read on to learn more about what diabetes is, what other health problems you might be more likely to get if you have diabetes, and what you can do to reduce your risk.

What is diabetes?

To control the amount of sugar in your blood, your body makes a hormone called insulin. It’s insulin’s job to move the sugar from your blood to your body’s cells, where it’s used for energy.

Normally, whenever sugar enters your blood, your body senses this, and releases insulin. But if you have diabetes, this doesn’t happen. Your body can’t break down the sugar into energy, so your blood sugar level becomes too high.

There are 2 main types of diabetes:

Type 2 is much more common than type 1. Both are serious, but they’re managed in different ways.
If you have type 1 diabetes, you’ll need regular medication such as insulin, because your body doesn’t make it.

With type 2 diabetes, you can help to manage it with lifestyle choices, such as eating a healthy diet, doing plenty of exercise and keeping to a healthy weight. You may also need medicine to keep your blood sugar at a normal level.

If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, you should have regular check-ups with your doctor, as it can lead to various health problems.

Man doing blood sugar test

What health problems can diabetes lead to?

If untreated, high blood sugar can damage your body over time and cause problems. These problems are known as complications of diabetes, and include:

  • heart attack and stroke
  • eye conditions
  • foot problems
  • loss of sensation and pain (nerve damage)
  • kidney problems
  • mouth problems
  • sexual problems

Read on to learn more about the problems diabetes can lead to, and what you can do to reduce your risk.

Heart attack and stroke

If sugar builds up in your blood and stays there, it can damage your blood vessels – and this can increase your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

It’s a good idea to get your blood fat level (cholesterol) and blood pressure checked at least once a year, so any problems can be treated as soon as possible. Diabetes also increases the damage smoking does to your heart, so you might want to quit.

Eye conditions

Over time, high blood sugar can damage the blood vessels that go to the back of your eye (retina). It’s a condition called diabetic retinopathy, which can eventually cause blindness if it isn’t untreated.

This can take years to develop, however. So it’s important to have an eye check once a year, to pick up any problems early and get them treated.

Foot problems

Diabetes can reduce the supply of blood to your feet, which means you might not notice if you hurt them as they are less sensitive or they might not heal properly, leading to infections.

If a sore or infection isn’t treated, it can lead to a serious condition called gangrene, where body tissue dies. In serious cases, that part of the body may need to be removed (amputated).

The good news is that this can be avoided if you keep an eye on your feet, and see a doctor if you notice any changes. You should also get a check-up once a year. Keeping your feet clean and dry will help to avoid infections, too.

dry skin and cornea on senior woman foot

Loss of sensation and pain (nerve damage)

Over time, high blood sugar can damage your nerves, making it harder for them to deliver messages between your brain and parts of your body. Nerve damage usually affects the feet, but can also change the way you see, feel and hear.

If you notice any changes in your body, let your doctor know – early treatment can stop nerve damage from getting worse.

Kidney problems

Too much sugar in your blood and high blood pressure can damage the tiny filters in your kidneys, making it harder for them to get rid of waste products from your body.

Kidney disease develops over a long period of time, and if you have diabetes you may be advised to have regular tests for it. If you do have it, treatment can stop it getting worse.

Mouth problems

High sugar in your blood can also mean more sugar in your spit (saliva). This leads to bacteria in your mouth, which produce acid. This acid can damage your tooth enamel and cause tooth decay, as well as irritate your gums and lead to inflammation and soreness.

So with diabetes, it’s particularly important to clean your teeth and have good oral hygiene, as well as visiting your dentist regularly to help prevent problems.

Sexual problems

If blood vessels or nerves have been damaged by high blood sugar, this can limit the blood flow to sexual organs. This means people with diabetes may lose some feeling in these areas, and have problems getting aroused or keeping an erection.

Diabetes can also cause a common yeast infection called thrush. You might get itching and irritation around your vagina or penis, and a white discharge. There are treatments available, so see your doctor or pharmacist.

When to see a doctor

Noticing the signs of possible problems means you can get help to stop them getting worse – so it’s important to keep an eye on your body and look out for changes. You should speak to your doctor if:

  • you feel numbness, pain and tingling in any parts of your body
  • you have difficulty pooing (constipation), or loose poos (diarrhea)
  • you notice cracks, cuts or blisters on your feet
  • your eyesight is blurry, you can’t see clearly, or you are sensitive to light
  • you have problems with sex

Man consults with his doctor

Key points

  • diabetes is a condition where the level of sugar in your blood is too high
  • there are two main types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2
  • type 2 is much more common than type 1
  • you can help manage type 2 diabetes with lifestyle changes along with medication
  • if left untreated, high blood sugar can damage your heart, eyes, feet, nerves and kidneys, and lead to sexual problems
  • speak to your doctor if you’re worried about diabetes complications
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Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.

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