Diabetes is a severe condition in which the blood contains an abnormally high glucose level (a type of sugar). Over time, high blood sugar (hyperglycaemia) can cause damage to small and large blood vessels in the body.
Damage to blood vessels occurs most often in the eyes, heart, nerves, feet, and kidneys, leading to heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease, vision loss and amputation. Diabetes can also affect other body parts, including the digestive system, the skin, sexual organs, teeth and gums, and the immune system. Understanding how diabetes affects your body is essential. It can help you follow a treatment plan and stay as healthy as possible.
Body parts most impacted and damaged by poorly managed or undiagnosed diabetes
High sugar levels in your blood for a long time can harm the tiny blood vessels in your eyes. It can result in vision problems or blindness.
To reduce your risk and pick up any vision problems early:
- Have a professional eye examination by an ophthalmologist or optometrist when you are first diagnosed and then at least every two years.
- See your doctor immediately if you have flashes of light, floaters, blots and dots or if part of your vision is missing.
The risk of cardiovascular disease is more significant for people with diabetes, who often have increased cholesterol and blood pressure levels. High blood sugar may harm the larger blood vessels that supply oxygen to your heart and brain. Fat can also build up in the blood vessels, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
To reduce your risk and pick up any cardiovascular problems early:
- Have your blood pressure checked at least every six months.
- Have your blood glucose checked (including HbA1c) at least every year or three- to six-monthly if recommended.
- Have your cholesterol checked at least every year.
Nerves carry important messages between your brain and other parts of your body. High sugar levels in your blood for many years can damage the blood vessels that bring oxygen to some nerves. Damaged nerves may stop sending pain signals.
To help prevent nerve damage:
- Keep your blood glucose levels in the target range.
- If you drink alcohol, keep within the recommended guidelines.
- Don’t smoke.
- Talk to your doctor about any problems you have with your hands, arms, feet, legs, stomach, bowels, or bladder.
Diabetes is a complex disease that can be treated. The disease requires continuous management to ensure quality of life and to prevent serious complications that may be life threatening. Know the facts.
Diabetes can harm your feet in two ways. First, it can damage your body’s nerves, stopping you from feeling pain or other problems in your feet. Secondly, diabetes can cause damage to your feet from poor blood circulation, making it hard for a sore or infection to heal. If sores don’t heal and get infected, it can lead to amputation.
Look after your feet by:
- Seeing a podiatrist at least once a year. They will check the blood supply and nerve function and look for changes in your feet’ structure.
- Checking your feet every day. Look for cuts, blisters, calluses, corns, tinea (especially between the toes) and any changes you notice. If treated early, it can help prevent complications.
- Using a moisturiser, especially if you have dry, rough, or cracked skin on your feet and heels, can help keep your feet healthy.
Protecting your feet by wearing comfortable, supportive shoes that fit well.
Kidneys are filled with tiny blood vessels and filter wastes and extra fluid in our bodies. Over time, high blood sugar can cause these blood vessels to narrow and clog. As your kidneys get less blood, less waste and fluid are filtered out of your body. Kidney disease is painless and does not cause symptoms until it is advanced. Screening is thus essential.
Kidney damage can be diagnosed early by checking the following:
- Microalbumin (tiny amounts of protein) in the urine at least once a year.
- Your kidney function, including estimated glomerular filtration rate (e-GFR).
If problems are picked up early, nephropathy can be slowed or prevented with the proper treatment.
Teeth and gums
People with poorly managed diabetes are at increased risk of tooth decay and gum infections as the small blood vessels that help nourish your teeth and gums can become damaged. Dental and gum infections can also lead to high blood glucose levels. Poor oral care can cause the gums to inflame and loosen around your teeth. It is also strongly linked with an increased risk of heart disease.
To reduce your risk of teeth and gum problems:
- See your dentist regularly (at least every six months) for a check-up.
- Brush your teeth at least twice daily (a soft toothbrush is generally recommended) and floss once daily.
- If you have dentures, make sure you brush your dentures and gums with a soft toothbrush.
Reducing the long-term effects of diabetes
The good news is that the risk of long-term effects of diabetes can be reduced by keeping blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol levels within the recommended range. Also, being a healthy weight, eating healthily, reducing alcohol intake, and not smoking will help reduce your risk. The sooner you get control of your diabetes, the less likely these long-term effects will happen to you.
Regular check-ups and screening are essential to identify any diabetes-related health problems early. If you work closely with your doctor and make healthy lifestyle choices, type 2 diabetes can often be successfully managed or even reversed.