High blood sugar associated with diabetes can affect any part of your body if left uncontrolled. The good news is that you can prevent or delay many health complications by taking good care of yourself.
Here are some of the complications caused by uncontrolled diabetes and tips on how you can prevent or manage them.
High blood sugar from diabetes can damage blood vessels as well as the nerves that control your heart and blood vessels. This can cause several heart conditions that damage the walls of your arteries and increase your risk for heart disease, including high blood pressure, high amounts of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and low amounts of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and high triglycerides (a type of fat) in your blood.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death among people with diabetes. Those with diabetes are twice as likely to have heart disease or a stroke as someone who doesn’t have diabetes and it could happen at a younger age.
Taking good care of your heart is the best way to prevent or control these conditions, including:
- Following a healthy diet of more fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains and less processed foods (such as chips, sweets, fast food)
- Aiming for a healthy weight by starting with a modest weight loss goals of 5% to lower your triglycerides and blood sugar
- Getting physically active for at least 150 minutes per week to make your body more sensitive to insulin and help manage your diabetes
High blood sugar causes chronic kidney disease by damaging the cells and blood vessels that filter out waste. If left unmanaged, this can lead to kidney failure. If your kidneys fail, you’ll need regular dialysis (a treatment that filters waste out of your blood) or a kidney transplant.
To help keep your kidneys heathy, talk to your doctor about your target blood sugar range and maintain it as much as possible, and keep your blood pressure below 140/90 mm Hg. Also, make sure to take any prescribed medicines as instructed by your doctor.
CKD doesn’t have any signs or symptoms at first, so it’s important to get your kidneys checked regularly. If you do develop CKD, early treatment can help prevent other health problems. Talk to your doctor about ways you can manage CKD and take care of your kidney health.
High blood sugar can cause neuropathy (nerve damage) throughout your body, especially in your arms and legs. This can cause mild numbness to pain that makes it hard to do normal activities. Nerve damage caused by diabetes can also lead to digestive disorders, sexual health issues, urinary tract infections and bladder problems.
The longer a person has diabetes, the more likely they will have nerve damage.
To prevent nerve damage:
- Keep your blood sugar as close to your target levels as possible.
- Keep your blood pressure below 140/90 mm Hg (or the target your doctor sets).
- Get regular physical activity.
- Lose weight if you’re overweight.
- Limit or avoid alcohol.
- Stop smoking or don’t start.
Nerve damage cause by uncontrolled diabetes can lower your ability to feel pain, heat, or cold. This means you may not notice a cut, blister, or sore, or that water is too hot. Combined with poor circulation (another diabetes complication) nerve damage puts you at risk for developing a foot sore that could get infected and not heal well. If an infection doesn’t get better with treatment, your toe, foot, or part of your leg may need to be removed by surgery to prevent the infection from spreading.
You can take care of your feet by:
- Checking your feet every day for cuts, redness, swelling, sores, corns, calluses, or blisters
- Washing your feet in warm—not hot—water, and drying them well
- Trimming your toenails straight across and file the edges with an emery board.
- Wearing shoes that fit well, and breaking in new shoes slowly by wearing them 1 to 2 hours each day until they’re comfortable
- Avoiding going barefoot to protect your feet from cuts
- Putting your feet up when you’re sitting and wiggle your toes for a few minutes.
- Getting your feet checked at every health care visit, and see your foot doctor every year.
The Comprehensive Wound Healing Center at Griffin Hospital, offers diabetic foot screenings and specializes in wound care for those diagnosed with diabetes. For more information or to make an appointment, call 203-732-7140 or visit griffinhealth.org/wound.
High blood sugar increases the level of sugar in your saliva, which can create plaque and lead to tooth decay. People with diabetes are also more likely to have gum disease, which can lead to tooth loss and can also increase blood sugar levels making diabetes harder to manage.
To keep your mouth, teeth, and gums healthy, keep your blood sugar as close to your target levels as possible. Brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss once a day, get regular dental checkups, and let your dentist know you have diabetes and stop smoking or don’t start.
Call your dentist right away if your gums are swollen and bleed easily, or if you think you may have a tooth infection.
Hearing loss is twice as common in people who have diabetes. High blood sugar levels can damage small blood vessels and nerves in the inner ear. This may also affect your balance.
To prevent hearing loss, keep your blood sugar as close to your target levels as possible and get your hearing checked every year.
Diabetic Retinopathy is a very common diabetes complication and the leading cause of blindness in U.S. adults. The small blood vessels in the retina (the light-sensitive layer at the back of the eyeball) can be damaged by high blood sugar levels and high blood pressure. New blood vessels can develop, but they don’t grow properly and leak, causing vision loss - usually in both eyes. People with diabetes are also more likely to develop cataracts (clouding of the lens) and glaucoma (a group of diseases that damage the optic nerve).
Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy include black spots or holes in your vision, flashes of light, loss of side vision, and halos around lights.
You can help keep your eyes healthy by:
- Keeping your blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels as close to your targets as you can
- Getting regular exercise
- Stopping smoking or not starting
- Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, especially dark, leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and collard greens, and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and tuna
- Taking medicines as prescribed by your doctor
- Visiting your eye doctor for a dilated eye exam at least once a year.
Behavioral health conditions like depression are much more common in people with diabetes, but only 25% to 50% get diagnosed and treated. Another very common problem is diabetes distress—feeling discouraged, frustrated, or tired of dealing with diabetes every day. That may cause you to slip into unhealthy habits, such as eating unhealthy food or skipping physical activity.
If you think you might have depression, get in touch with your doctor right away. The sooner you get treatment, the better for you, your quality of life and your diabetes.
Ask your doctor to refer you to a mental health counselor who specializes in chronic health conditions.
Some of the information in this article can be attributed to The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).