Diabetes Complications: Understanding and Preventing Them

If you live with diabetes, you probably know the immediate side effects of high blood sugar: headaches, racing heartbeat, blurred vision, and sometimes nausea.  What many don’t realise is that, when not managed, diabetes can cause more serious complications.

It truly is a condition that can affect the entire body, causing problems like neuropathy, periodontal diseases, retinopathy, heart conditions, and nephropathy.

Get to know the 7 top diabetes complications

When blood sugar remains unchecked, it can lead to a variety of diabetes complications. That said, there is hope. Preventing them can be as simple as being aware of the problems and take basic steps.

1.     Hypoglycaemia

The most common complication with diabetes is hypoglycaemia, or severe low blood sugar, when the glucose level in the blood falls below the healthy range, i.e., 70 mg/dL. 83% of people with type 1 diabetes and 46.5% with type 2 diabetes have low blood sugar at least once a month.

If you have low blood sugar, you may:

  • Have a headache
  • Not seeing or speaking clearly
  • Feel shaky, dizzy, tired or hungry
  • Get light-headed, confused, or irritable
  • Not have a steady heartbeat, or it may beat too fast

A mild fall in blood glucose is not dangerous and can be easily treated, but hypoglycaemia can be life-threatening. If not treated right away, it stops the brain from working, causing complications like:

  • Passing out
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death

Blood sugar can get low even when you’re asleep. So, if you live with someone who has diabetes, look out for these symptoms:

  • Nightmares
  • Crying out
  • Enough sweating to make pyjamas or sheets damp
  • Feeling tired, confused, or irritable after waking up

Eat healthily, be physically active, have the right medicine, and regularly test your blood sugar to prevent hypoglycaemia.

2.     Heart conditions

You’re more likely to develop a heart condition if you have diabetes because it damages blood vessels. Since diabetes is often accompanied by high blood pressure or high cholesterol, it increases the risk of strokes and heart attacks. Adults living with diabetes have a 2- to 3-fold greater risk of heart attacks and strokes.

You can do a lot to prevent heart complications, starting with managing the ABCs of diabetes. Get your HbA1C tested regularly, and make sure your blood pressure and cholesterol are not high. Lastly, protect yourself by not smoking.

3.     Neuropathy

One of the diabetes complications is neuropathy, which is damage to nerves that can occur in any part of the body. High levels of blood sugar for a long time, along with high levels of fat, can damage nerves.

  • Peripheral neuropathy is when the damage is on the feet, legs, hands, or arms. It is highly common but can vary from asymptomatic to painful symptoms.
  • Autonomic neuropathy is when the nerves controlling the internal organs are damaged. It can affect the blood pressure, cause problems to the eyes, for the digestive system, and even sweat glands.
    • Bladder complications: autonomic neuropathy can damage the urinary tract, leading to bladder problems like leaks and retained urine. 

4.     Serious foot complications

Ulcers, calluses, and infections in the feet are prevalent diabetes complications. Most of them happen because diabetes reduces the blood flow to your feet and can cause damage to nerves.

Besides tingling and pain, it can make you lose sensation in your feet, which is more dangerous as you don’t even realise there is a cut or blister on your foot.

Reduced blood flow also makes it harder to heal. So, even a tiny blister can turn into a sore, which can then become infected. When infections remain unnoticed, they can lead to gangrene and the amputation of toes, feet, or parts of the leg.

Here’s how you can lower your chances of diabetes-related foot complications:

  • Take care of your feet by washing them daily.
  • Check them for problems like spots, sores, cuts, blisters, ingrown nails, corns, warts, calluses, etc.
  • Look for changes in your feet like:
    • Colour change,
    • Hard skin in pressure areas
    • Slow-healing wounds,

Always report these changes to a doctor along with any pain, tingling sensation, or numbness.

5.     Diabetic nephropathy

For diabetics, damage to the kidneys, which is also known as diabetic kidney disease (DKD), chronic kidney disease (CKD) or diabetic nephropathy, happens slowly. Because of the damage, the kidneys don’t filter blood properly, causing waste to build up.

The CDC estimates that 1 in 3 people with diabetes have kidney disease, and it is more likely to occur when blood sugar and blood pressure are too high. An easy way to prevent diabetic nephropathy is to look out for signs of high blood sugar, or hyperglycaemia:

  • Feeling thirsty, tired, or weak
  • Having headaches
  • Frequent urination
  • Blurred vision

More ways to prevent kidney complications are not smoking, following your meal plan, reducing salt in food, staying active, and reducing weight.

6.     Eye diseases

Diabetes can cause several eye complications, from poor vision to blindness. Some of the conditions you should be aware of are diabetic retinopathy, cataracts, macular oedema, and glaucoma.

  • Diabetic retinopathy is when damage to blood vessels harms the retina (the lining at the back of the eye).
  • A cataract occurs when the lens of the eye becomes cloudy due to deposit build-up and diabetics are at a higher risk of it, too, at an earlier age.
  • People living with diabetes are twice as likely to develop glaucoma, a condition that damages the optic nerve.

Be vigilant of these signs:

  • Any vision changes like dark spots
  • Blurry or fluctuating vision
  • Impaired colour vision
  • Empty or dark areas in vision
  • Sudden vision loss

Report them to a doctor right away and to prevent diabetes-related eye complications have a dilated eye exam annually, besides taking  the usual steps to manage your condition.

7.     Dental issues

Living with diabetes is hard on your mouth, and it can lead to complications like dry mouth, infections, or gum disease. Most of them occur because diabetics produce less saliva and their saliva contains more glucose, which shoots up the chances of cavities and other dental problems.

The most serious (and common) complication is periodontal gum disease. In the first stage, called gingivitis, the tissue around your teeth (gums) gets inflamed. If you don’t treat it at this stage, it progresses to periodontitis, where both the gum and the bone get infected so much that it can cause tooth loss.

There are simple steps you can take to avoid periodontal infection. Brush your teeth twice daily and visit your dentist every year. If and when you notice signs of diabetic complications, immediately book an appointment to rule out anything serious.

The takeaway on dealing with diabetes complications

Yes, diabetes is the root of many complications, but most of them arise due to uncontrolled blood sugar, unhealthy eating, and a sedentary lifestyle. As long as you manage your glucose levels, eat healthy, and have an exercise routine, you can prevent diabetes problems.

In addition, take your medication as prescribed, keep all your appointments, and check your blood sugar and pressure like clockwork. Always be wary of changes to the skin such as numbness, pain, bruises, rashes, lumps or unexplained bleeding. Immediately consult a doctor if you notice these signs. Plus, follow site rotation and do not inject insulin at the same place repeatedly.

Finally, if you have trouble managing the condition, take control with the help of tools like QurHome.


International Diabetes Federation – Home (idf.org)

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