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Managing and Preventing the Complications of Diabetes

November is National Diabetes Month. This year’s theme is “Take Diabetes to Heart,” reflecting the connection between diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Heart disease is only one of the health problems made worse by diabetes. Read our Holiday Tips for People With Diabetes during this holiday season. 

More than 30 million people in the U.S. are living with diabetes, a disease that happens when blood glucose (blood sugar) is too high. Diabetes sometimes happens when the pancreas cannot manufacture enough insulin, a hormone that helps glucose from food get into the cells to be used for energy. Or, it might be that the cells in the muscles, liver, and fat are not able to use insulin properly. As a result, the amount of glucose in the blood increases while the cells are starved of energy.

The complications from the disease can be severe. They include serious problems such as heart disease, eye and kidney damage, high blood pressure, and nerve damage that could result in amputation.

While this is a very sobering list of complications, patients themselves have the power to reduce the potential for complications, and to successfully manage the disease. Self-care practices such as healthy eating, being active and monitoring blood glucose levels make a huge difference.

Let’s review some diabetes complications, along with some positive actions that can help patients and loved ones minimize damage and improve outcome:

Nerve Damage

Nerve damage called diabetic neuropathy can appear as numbness, tingling, pain, perspiration problems and bladder problems. It is caused by high blood sugar. You can help control your blood sugar through eating the diet your healthcare provider suggests, getting enough exercise, taking medications correctly, and frequent blood glucose level testing.

Increased Risk of Infection

For people with diabetes, high levels of blood sugar foster the growth of bacterial and fungal infections, especially common in the skin and urinary tract. You can decrease the risk of infection by keeping skin clean and dry, bathing regularly, drinking plenty of water, and talking to your doctor if a cut doesn’t heal quickly. Diabetes is also associated with gum disease—and gum disease itself can increase the risk of diabetes. See your dentist regularly and brush and floss as recommended.

Impaired Vision

Did you know that diabetic eye disease is the No. 1 cause of vision loss in adults? While many people develop glaucoma, cataracts and retinal damage, people with diabetes develop these problems more often and at an earlier age. Over time, high blood sugar can injure the blood vessels of the eye, including the retina, lens and optic nerve. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), early detection and treatment can prevent or delay blindness in 90% of people with diabetes! Remember—damage to the eyesight may not be apparent at first, so have an annual exam even if your vision isn’t bothering you.

Foot Problems

While anyone can have foot problems, the loss of sensation caused by diabetes-related nerve problems can make it difficult for a person to realize they’ve sustained an injury to the feet. Diabetes-related damage to blood vessels makes things worse. In some cases, amputation is necessary to stop the spread of these infections. It is important to pay attention to your feet, inspecting them regularly so problems won’t worsen. Keep feet clean and dry, and talk to your healthcare provider about the best type of shoes and socks to select.

Heart Disease, Kidney Disease and Stroke

Diabetes also makes it more likely that a person will suffer from heart disease, stroke and kidney disease (diabetic nephropathy). A healthy lifestyle and commitment to managing heart and kidney conditions is very important. This includes following the meal plan recommended by your doctor, getting the right amount and type of exercise, controlling your blood pressure, complying with medication instructions, quitting smoking, and regular monitoring of blood sugar.

Learn more on the websites of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases  and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Talk to your doctor about preventing and treating the complications of diabetes.

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