How Diabetes Can Have Hidden Symptoms

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An estimated 24 million Americans have diabetes, but according to the CDC, one-quarter to one-third don’t know it. How can so many individuals be unaware that they have diabetes? Certainly, one major factor is the absence of symptoms. This is a hallmark of both prediabetes and the early stages of type 2 diabetes.

Signs and Symptoms 

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes share such symptoms as unquenchable thirst with frequent urination, unexpected weight loss, fatigue, extreme hunger, and blurred vision. Another symptom experienced by people with type 2 diabetes is an increased frequency of infections and cuts, or bruises that do not heal quickly. The onset of symptoms tends to be more gradual for people with type 2 diabetes than for those with type 1.

The gradual nature of prediabetes — often a precursor to type 2 diabetes — can disguise actual diabetic symptoms and prevent early diagnosis. As a result, it is especially important for individuals who have some diabetes risk factors to be aware of the symptoms and to watch for their appearance.

The appearance of any of these symptoms is a good reason to see a healthcare professional.

Risk Factors 

Diabetes, particularly type 2, has a hereditary component. If an individual with diabetes has a family member with the disease, that individual has an increased chance of developing it as well. Other major risk factors include smoking, being overweight or inactive, or having high cholesterol or high blood pressure. Age, ethnicity (of European descent for type 1, and of African, Asian, Hispanic, American Indian or Pacific Islander descent for type 2), history of gestational diabetes and prediabetes are also risk factors.

Being overweight is one of the most striking correlates of diabetes. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that about 80 percent of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese. Fortunately, it doesn't take dramatic weight loss to reduce the risk for diabetes or to improve one’s health. If someone loses just 5% of his or her weight, it can make a significant difference in reducing the risk of diabetes. Losing any weight can also help delay or prevent diabetic complications, and make glucose control easier in type 2 diabetes.

Taking Action

When someone has any of the risk factors for diabetes, prediabetes testing is recommended. The main tests are the fasting plasma glucose test and the oral glucose tolerance test, although even a random plasma glucose test may be helpful — and it’s the easiest one to do. Both the NIH and the American Diabetes Association suggest that people with risk factors should be screened for diabetes as often as every two years.

The most important thing for a person with diabetes to do is to make useful, concrete decisions on diet and exercise with the help of his or her healthcare team. People with diabetes should be proactive and ask their health care providers about their blood sugar levels and the risk factors associated with diabetes.

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