Poorly managed diabetes can affect many areas of your health. Find out how to avoid the wide range of possible diabetes complications.
When you have diabetes, it’s crucial to manage the condition and control your blood sugar. That’s because unchecked high blood sugar can increase your risk for organ damage throughout your body. Fortunately, a little vigilance can help you sidestep or reduce many complications of diabetes.
“To avoid problems, people with diabetes have to be aggressive and take a very proactive role,” says Kevin Pantalone, DO, an endocrinologist at Summa Western Reserve Hospital in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.
Use this head-to-toe body check to minimize your risk of diabetes-related health problems:
Your skin. People with diabetes are more likely to develop skin infections because they often have nerve damage, making it harder to sense when skin is wounded. You may also have poor blood flow, which further increases the risk for developing skin ulcers and skin infections. In rare cases, you can develop a condition called necrobiosis lipoidica, which causes open, slow-to-heal sores on the lower legs. To prevent skin problems from causing more severe complications, wash your skin every day, and follow up by checking skin for red, dry, or sore spots. If a problem develops, see your doctor promptly.
Your eyes. People with diabetes are 60 percent more likely than those without diabetes to get cataracts, a condition marked by a clouding of the eye’s lens. High blood sugar levels can also damage the small blood vessels that feed the retina, causing vision difficulties or even blindness. For healthy eyes, it’s important to get a dilated eye exam by an ophthalmologist every year even if you’re not having any noticeable problems because many eye conditions do not cause symptoms until they have reached an advanced stage. “If you see early signs of these eye problems, there are things you can do to treat them,” Dr. Pantalone says. Don’t delay seeking treatment if you do experience vision problems.
Your teeth and mouth. You’re at a higher risk for gum disease if you have diabetes, and gum disease can make blood sugar harder to control, too. Poor dental health also means more bacteria in your mouth, which can then migrate to any open oral sore that you might have. “A mouth sore can easily turn into an abscess,” Pantalone says. Your best weapon against diabetes related oral problems is to have twice-yearly checkups at the dentist, plus a good oral hygiene routine that includes twice-daily brushing with toothpaste that has an anti-gingivitis ingredient.
Your heart. The risk for cardiovascular disease is much higher for people with diabetes. “Someone who has diabetes has an equal risk for heart disease as someone without diabetes who’s already had one heart attack,” Pantalone says. To minimize the possibility of heart problems, you must maintain strict control of your blood sugar. Four times a year, you should get the A1C test, which measures your average blood sugar levels over the past three months; a result of 7 percent or less is ideal. Reducing the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol in your bloodstream can also help. People with diabetes who haven’t had heart problems should aim for an LDL level of 100 mg/dL or less; if you’ve already had complications, aim for 70 mg/dL or less. Prescription drugs called statins may be used to bring cholesterol to healthy levels. Lowering your blood pressure can also help protect your heart. People with diabetes should aim to keep their blood pressure below 140/80 mmHg.
Your kidneys. Over time, high blood sugar can damage the small blood vessels that feed the kidneys. If left unchecked, high blood sugar levels can cause diabetic nephropathy, a condition that causes the kidneys to eliminate protein through the urine. If the problem isn’t caught before it reaches an advanced stage, your kidneys may fail, making dialysis or a kidney transplant necessary. Strict blood sugar control can reduce the risk for early-stage kidney disease by as much as one-third. For maximum diabetes wellness, have your urine albumin (a specific type of protein) level checked at least once a year.
Your nervous system. If you have diabetes and your blood sugar is poorly managed over a long period of time, you can develop diabetic neuropathy, or damage to your nerves. Usually, neuropathy tends to first affect the nerves in your extremities, such as those in your feet. “Neuropathy can work its way up to the shins and knees,” Pantalone says. “Sometimes, the fingers and hands become affected, too.” Keeping your blood sugar levels under good control with diet and medication is the best way to prevent neuropathy. You should see your doctor right away if you begin to notice signs of neuropathy, such as loss of sensation or a burning or tingling feeling in your limbs. The doctor can help you bring your blood sugar within an acceptable level and prescribe medication to relieve neuropathic pain. If you’re diagnosed with diabetic neuropathy, you’ll usually be advised to see a foot doctor (podiatrist) for special care of your feet. Some people with diabetes can develop onychomycosis, or toenail fungus, which makes the nails large, brittle, and yellow. “The infected toenails can get ripped off just by putting socks on, so it’s important to take proper care of your feet if you have toenail fungus,” Pantalone says.
The complications of diabetes can strike nearly any part of your body, but you can do a lot to protect yourself — first by vigilantly managing your diabetes and having regular check-ups, and then by promptly bringing any warning signs to your doctor’s attention.