Taking diabetes seriously: Key symptoms that can't be ignored
November 9, 2016 | by Jay Fernandez
Research shows that consumer awareness of diabetes and its serious health consequences is at an all-time high. Yet in spite of increased knowledge, a growing number of Americans are being diagnosed with the complex metabolic disease.
An estimated 18 million (12 percent) of American adults have diabetes. And one-third of the adult population is believed to have undiagnosed prediabetes. It is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. In 2050, experts predict one out of every three Americans will have diabetes.
Experts worry that people are not taking diabetes seriously enough, as greater awareness has merely normalized the affliction. “People know a little more about diabetes than they did 10 years ago,” said Raynald Samoa, M.D., assistant professor in City of Hope’s Department of Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism. “But now that diabetes is becoming more and more common, what we’re seeing is that people minimize it, like it’s a cold: ‘Oh, well, everyone else has it.’”
Diabetes occurs when the pancreas is unable produce enough insulin to control blood sugars. This can be a result of the cells in the pancreas being destroyed or overworked for a long time (because the body does not use its insulin well.) In both cases, too much sugar is produced in the blood, causing a number of adverse health effects.
Currently, there is no cure for diabetes. But if it is caught early, healthier lifestyle choices can help prevent major complications.
There are three different types of diabetes
- Type 1, which often develops before the age of 20, results when the body is not producing any or enough insulin. It typically has very noticeable symptoms that accelerate quickly.
- Type 2, which is by far the most common (up to 95 percent of cases), results when the insulin that the pancreas produces is insufficient because the cells in the body are resistant to insulin. Its symptoms can be so gradual and mild that a patient only becomes aware of them once significant damage has been done.
- The third type, gestational diabetes, occurs in a small percentage of pregnant women and usually disappears after delivery.
“What we’re seeing with (type 2) diabetes is that it’s a cumulative effect over time,” Samoa said. “There are many different hits that you get over time that keep adding to it. Let’s say you’re not being very mindful of what you’re eating and you start to gain weight. That can wreak havoc on how you deal with stress. That stress can manifest into not sleeping well, which will also worsen your body’s ability to use its insulin very well. And then when you’re not sleeping well and you’re tired all the time, you’re definitely not going to want to exercise very much. Over time, there’s a ripple effect.”
For decades, Diabetes & Metabolism Research Institute at City of Hope has been working to advance diabetes detection and treatment.
Following are the basic symptoms of types 1 and 2, starting with those that are common to both:
- Fatigue: When glucose can’t get into the cells, there is a depletion of energy, causing the sufferer to be very tired.
- Hunger: The lack of glucose increases hunger, especially right after eating.
- More frequent urination: Once a person’s blood sugar has gone up, the kidneys will try to expel the extra glucose by making more urine. As a result, the diabetic will urinate more times in a day.
- Thirst: Extra urine production will provoke the body to crave more fluids to replace it, which increases urination even more.
- Dry mouth and itchiness: Since fluids are depleted, moisture in the body will diminish, making the skin dry and itchy. Gums also can become tender and swollen as diabetes weakens the body’s ability to fight germs.
- Changes in breathing: Faster or deeper breathing may occur.
- Blurry vision: Changing fluid levels can cause the lenses of the eyes to swell or change shape, making it difficult to focus. If untreated, this can lead to blindness.
Additional type 1 symptoms may include:
- Unexplained weight loss: Lost energy from the lack of glucose means the body will start to look for it elsewhere, such as in fat and muscle, causing weight loss even when a person has not changed their diet.
Nausea and sweet-smelling breath: As the body burns fat, it can cause a build-up of ketones in the blood, making a person feel sick to their stomach. At high levels, the build-up of these simple compounds can be very dangerous, resulting in diabetic ketoacidosis. A telltale sign of this is when the breath has a sweet odor that smells like nail polish remover.
Additional type 2 symptoms, which tend to appear after glucose levels have been high for a long time, may include:
- Cuts, bruises and sores that are slow to heal: Nerves and blood flow can be damaged by high blood sugar.
- Leg and foot numbness or pain: Pain in the lower extremities also can result from nerve damage.
- Yeast infections: Since glucose feeds on yeast, higher levels can encourage infection in warm, moist folds of skin around the body, for both men and women.
- Erectile dysfunction and impotence: A decrease in blood flow due to high blood sugar can lead to erection problems.
Early detection and treatment of diabetes can decrease the risk of complications. “If you are at higher risk for diabetes and experiencing any of the common symptoms, consult with your doctor or health care team to get checked out,” Samoa said.
For type 2 diabetes, prevention is key. “Stay at a healthy weight, eat well and be active,” Samoa added. “These steps can reduce your risk for many serious health problems resulting from diabetes.”
Learn more about our diabetes research and treatments.
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