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Avoid Complications from Diabetes

Learn about the ways diabetes can affect your health and what you can do about it.

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People with diabetes are at increased risk for many health complications. But early treatment, appropriate screenings and preventive care, proper diabetes management and lifestyle changes may help delay or prevent them.

Here are some of the most common diabetes complications and what you can do about them:

Your heart

The leading cause of early death for people with diabetes is heart disease and stroke. The risk for heart disease or stroke is almost double for people with diabetes. Heart disease and stroke can be caused by fatty deposits in the walls of blood vessels caused by high blood sugar levels. These deposits can build up and form plaque that can narrow or block blood vessels. Plaque also makes it more likely that a clot will form and restrict blood flow to your heart.

What you can do: Develop a heart healthy lifestyle. Keep your blood pressure at a normal range. Be physically active, with your doctor's approval. Aim for 30 minutes a day, on at least five days a week. Keep the time you spend being sedentary, such as TV watching, computer or desk work, to no longer than 90 minutes at a time. Adopt a heart-healthy diet. A registered dietitian can help you plan an eating program so you get enough fiber and cut down on the saturated fats, cholesterol and avoid trans fats in your food. Talk to your doctor or dietitian about the salt in your diet.

If you need to lose weight, options to consider include a Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension (or DASH)-type diet or the Mediterranean diet. Avoid trans fats. If you smoke, quit. Remember, you can always talk with your doctor about smoking quit aids.  Free, round-the-clock help is available at the national stop-smoking hotline, 800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669). Limit alcohol. If your doctor suggests that you take medicines to manage your blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood clotting, it is important to do so and keep your follow-up office visits.

Your eyes

Diabetic eye diseases include diabetic retinopathy, cataracts and glaucoma. Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in America. While anyone may develop cataracts and glaucoma, people with diabetes are more likely to get them and at a younger age. High blood pressure and high blood sugar can damage your eyes and can lead to swelling in the blood vessels in the retina. Fluid can leak or new blood vessels might grow on the retina.

What you can do: Aim to keep your blood pressure and blood sugar under control. Ask your doctor how often you should have your eyes examined. And, ask about when you should have a test with dilated pupils.

Your kidneys

Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure in America. It accounts for 44 percent of new kidney failure cases each year. Diabetes can cause kidney problems even when it’s well controlled. Kidneys filter wastes from blood. When the kidneys don’t work right, wastes and fluids build up and blood protein can leak into urine. Over time, the body can get contaminated by the wastes. It may lead to kidney disease and kidney failure.

What you can do: Aim to keep your blood sugar and blood pressure under control. Talk to your health care team about the medications and meal planning that work for you. Your doctor may change the amount of protein you consume. Get regular screenings for kidney disease. Blood tests and urine screens can detect problems.

Your feet

People with diabetes need to pay special attention to their feet. Why? High blood glucose can cause nerve damage and poor blood flow. And high blood glucose can slow the body’s healing process. The nerve damage (neuropathy) and poor blood flow may lead to a number of foot problems. You may develop a tingling, burning or a total lack of feeling in your feet and lower legs. Your skin may be dry. Your feet may more easily develop calluses and foot ulcers. Nerve damage can also change the shape of your toes and feet, making it difficult to find shoes that fit well. If you can’t feel your feet, a blister or small cut could quickly become infected. In severe cases, it may lead to amputation of the infected body part.

What you can do: Wash your feet in warm water daily. (Because feet may be numb, be sure to test the water so it’s not too hot.) Dry them off thoroughly. Check your feet every day for any sores or blisters. If your feet are very dry, rub lotion on the tops and bottoms, but not between your toes. Have a medical professional trim your toenails. Always wear footwear for protection.

Your doctor will want to do a comprehensive foot exam every year. He or she may wish to examine your feet at each visit. Mention any problems you’re having with your feet. He or she may also check the blood flow to your lower legs and feet.

Your stomach and intestines

If the nerves that control the movement of food through your body are damaged by diabetes, it may lead to a number of problems. One condition called gastroparesis involves a delay in emptying the stomach contents; this may impact digestion of food. The slower food digestion may affect blood sugar levels even more. This may make diabetes symptoms worse.

What you can do: Check with your doctor to see if medications or dietary changes can help the symptoms.

Other problem areas

Diabetes may affect other parts of the body. Some people with diabetes experience depression, sleep apnea, fractures, oral and dental problems. It’s important to keep up to date on your dental check-ups. If you’re concerned  you may be depressed or you’re having sleep issues, check with your doctor.

Work with your doctor and diabetes health team to create a diabetes management plan. The team typically includes a doctor, eye doctor, nurse and dietician. A diabetes plan can include ways for you to eat healthier, get the right medications, develop an exercise routine and follow a schedule of regular health screenings. Don’t forget to keep your immunizations up to date. Be sure to get your annual flu shot and find out if you should receive any other vaccine updates.

By Susan G. Warner, Contributing Writer

American Diabetes Association. Standards of medical care in diabetes–2015. Accessed: October 12, 2015.
National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. Prevent diabetes problems: Keep your feet healthy. Accessed: October 12, 2015.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is atherosclerosis? Accessed: October 12, 2015.

Last Updated: November 20, 2015