Understanding the Hidden Dangers of Diabetes

Doctor testing patient blood sugar for diabetes in examination room. Caiaimage/Agnieszka Wozniak/ GettyImages

Diabetes is a progressive disease that can cause many serious complications. Chronically elevated blood sugar levels can wreak havoc on your body. The good news is that managing diabetes and keeping your blood sugars controlled can help to prevent or delay potential complications. Whether your diabetes is in good control or not, it is important to know what these complications are so that you can identify them and seek treatment right away.  

Some of the more well-known complications are nerve damage (neuropathy), such as peripheral neuropathy which is characterized by numbness, tingling, and pain in the hands and feet, kidney failure (nephropathy) and vision problems (retinopathy). Keeping your blood sugars, weight, blood pressure and getting routine check-ups by specialists can help you to prevent these types of complications. Additionally, there are some other types of complications of diabetes that you may not be aware of. 

Skin Complications

Having diabetes can make you more susceptible to disease, including diseases of the skin. In fact, skin disorders are sometimes one of the first noticeable signs of diabetes.

You might be more at risk for fungal infections, bacterial infections, and itchy skin. Other disorders of the skin are more exclusive to diabetes. They include blisters, atherosclerosis, digital sclerosis, and eruptive xanthomatosis. 

Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease

If you have diabetes, your risk of developing heart disease—coronary artery disease (CAD) in particular is twice as that of the rest of the population. High blood pressure and increased risk of stroke are also complications of diabetes. There are several reasons for this increased cardiac risk:

  • Elevated blood sugar levels have been strongly correlated with endothelial dysfunction, a condition in which the endothelial lining (inner lining) of the blood vessels is not functioning normally. Endothelial dysfunction plays a major role in the development of atherosclerosis.
  • There is evidence that in people with diabetes, the plaques that form within blood vessels during the process of atherosclerosis may differ from plaques seen in people who don't have diabetes. Plaques in people with diabetes tend to contain more lipids than usual, and more macrophages (inflammatory cells) than is typical. These differences appear to make plaques in diabetics more prone to rupture, the event that triggers acute coronary syndrome (ACS)

Peripheral Arterial Disease 

According to the American Diabetes Association, an estimated one out of every three people with diabetes over the age of 50 have this condition. Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) occurs when blood flow in your legs is blocked due to a build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries—the same way the arteries in the heart can clog. Having PAD increases your risk of heart attack or stroke. In addition to diabetes, key risk factors for PAD include: being over the age of 50, smoking, sedentary lifestyle, elevated blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, obesity, history of heart disease, stroke, or heart attack. 

Not everyone who has PAD has symptoms, but those who do may have leg pain or trouble walking that stops when they rest. People with PAD may also complain of leg cramping, numbness, tingling, or coldness in the lower legs or feet, or sores or infections on your feet or legs that heal slowly. 

Diabetes Increases Infection Risk

Diabetes can also put you at risk for infections. Foot infections, yeast infections, urinary tract infections and surgical site infections can present serious complications. One of the reasons for the increase in infection risk is a weakened immune system. Also, peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage), can make you less likely to feel foot injuries, making it extra important for you to care for your feet and check them for damage.

Diabetes and Depression

Depression often seems to accompany diabetes. While studies have found that having diabetes can make people more susceptible to depression, others show that depression can lead to type 2 diabetes. Whichever comes first, they do appear to go hand in hand.

A Word From Verywell

Diabetes can cause a host of complications if not taken care of. The important thing to understand though is that if you control your blood sugar, you can decrease your risk and even prolong or prevent many of these from occurring. It's always good to know and understand what types of complications can be associated with diabetes—even if you never experience them, knowing how to identify them if you have to is important. If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms and are having trouble getting your diabetes under control, ask for help. Contact your certified diabetes educator, dietitian, or health care professional to help get you back on track. It's never too late to take control. 

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