Diabetes: Symptoms and treatment
On this page
- Symptoms of diabetes
- Diagnosing and treating diabetes
- Possible complications and co-occurring conditions
Symptoms of diabetes
Each type of diabetes may have different symptoms, which can include:
- unusual thirst
- frequent urination
- weight gain or loss
- extreme fatigue or lack of energy
Symptoms can also include:
- blurred vision
- frequent or recurring infections
- cuts and bruises that are slow to heal
- tingling or numbness in the hands or feet
- trouble getting or maintaining an erection
Visit a healthcare provider if you have any of these signs and symptoms. They'll determine if you should take a test to diagnose diabetes.
It's also possible for you to have diabetes or prediabetes without showing any signs and symptoms.
Diagnosing and treating diabetes
Diabetes management, treatment and care varies depending on which type you have. However, the common goal for all types is to:
- eliminate symptoms and reduce risks of high or low blood sugar levels
- prevent or delay the progression of complications through early detection and care
Self-management and care for diabetes and related complications relies on services and supports from many health professionals, specialists and providers.
To confirm a diabetes diagnosis, a health care provider gives you a blood test to measure your blood sugar. Some of these tests include:
- the fasting plasma glucose test, which measures blood sugar when you haven't eaten for at least 8 hours (FPG test)
- the glycated hemoglobin blood test, which measures your average blood glucose level over 2 to 3 months (A1C test)
- the oral glucose tolerance test, where you drink 75g of a sweet glucose liquid after fasting for at least 8 hours and then measure your blood sugars every 1 or 2 hours (OGTT test)
After you receive a diagnosis, your healthcare provider will talk to you about next steps, including:
- a treatment plan
- the role of the healthcare team
Diagnosing diabetes early is extremely important. The earlier you get a diagnosis, the sooner you can take steps to manage the condition and prevent or delay any complications.
It's possible to manage prediabetes without medication:
- through regular physical activity
- by maintaining a healthy weight
- by eating a variety of healthy foods
These healthy lifestyle changes can also help prevent prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes is treated with insulin, which is a hormone that lowers blood glucose. Insulin also controls other aspects of your metabolism, such as converting glucose into fat. Since insulin lowers blood glucose, it's common to use insulin injections to control glucose levels.
Type 2 diabetes can also be treated with a combination of lifestyle changes and medication, such as pills and insulin.
These steps can help to manage diabetes and to prevent low blood glucose (hypoglycemia) and high blood glucose (hyperglycemia):
- Consult a dietician.
- Wear a medic-alert bracelet.
- Monitor your blood glucose regularly.
- Talk to your doctor about the best treatment for you.
- Ask your doctor how to prevent or deal with hypoglycemia.
- Learn to recognize and manage the symptoms of high and low blood glucose.
You should also consult with your doctor whenever you feel ill, as your medication requirements may change. Always:
- consult your doctor before taking new medications
- notify any treating physician of your diabetes and insulin treatment
Learn about the different kinds of medication available in Canada so that you only take the kind advised by your doctor.
You may need medical equipment as a result of diabetes-related complications, such as:
- eye glasses for vision loss
- prosthetics or assistive devices for limb impairments
Possible complications and co-occurring conditions
If you have diabetes, you may develop complications or other conditions alongside it (co-occurring conditions). Some of these include:
- vision loss
- heart disease
- kidney disease
- foot ulcers and lower limb amputations
Diabetes can also lead to:
- negative mental health outcomes
- severe disease outcomes and increased mortality risk
You may also be susceptible to other illnesses. For example, you may be at a higher risk of more severe disease or outcomes from COVID-19 infection than others.
People living with diabetes have a higher risk of developing high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems. Together, they can have serious impacts on your health.
High blood glucose levels can cause damage to the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart. The need for more insulin due to higher insulin resistance can also lead to the development of fatty deposits or plaque in the arteries (atherosclerosis).
Atherosclerosis can cause high blood pressure, which if not treated, can lead to:
- heart failure
- heart attack
- kidney failure
- blood vessel damage
You may also need to take medications to manage cholesterol and blood pressure because of increased risk of heart disease. Coronary artery disease, or hardening of the arteries, is the most common form of heart disease in people living with diabetes.
People living with diabetes are also more likely to develop heart disease and related conditions such as:
- high blood pressure
- high levels of bad cholesterol and other fats in the blood
- low levels of good cholesterol, which helps reduce the risk of heart disease
- a thicker left heart ventricle, which can affect how well the heart pumps
Managing diabetes can reduce the risk of heart disease, so it should be a priority for anyone living with diabetes.
Signs of early kidney damage can develop in as many as 50% or more of people living with diabetes. This can lead to more kidney damage or kidney failure if left untreated.
You could have serious kidney damage without being aware of it. There are usually no specific symptoms of kidney disease until the damage is severe.
You should have your kidney health tested once a year. Your doctor can arrange a urine test for protein and a blood test to check how well your kidneys are functioning.
Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of vision loss over time and disability in people under 50 in Canada. Nearly all people with type 1 diabetes and 60% of those with type 2 develop some form of diabetic retinopathy during the first 20 years that they have diabetes. Symptoms include:
- blurred vision
- fluctuating vision
- floating shapes in a person's vision
Depending on the extent of a person's vision loss, they may need help to:
- use certain devices
- self-manage their diabetes
Foot ulcers and lower limb amputations
Diabetes affects circulation and immunity, and can damage the sensory nerves in the hands and feet over time. People living with diabetes may not feel a foot injury, blister or cut. Small sores, ulcers or wounds may become infected leading to serious complications that may result in amputation.
Diabetes foot infections are the most common reason for hospital admission for people living with diabetes in Canada. You may have a higher risk of amputation due to diabetes foot ulcers if you:
- are over 40
- have lived with diabetes for 10 years or more
Diabetes is one of the leading causes of lower limb amputations for adults living in Canada. Poor circulation can prevent ulcers and wounds from healing properly, which can lead to infections and amputations.
Numbness of the feet and legs, called peripheral neuropathy, can also make it hard to notice any injuries.
Diabetes foot ulcers and wounds resulting in amputation may be prevented by:
- early detection
- effective wound care
- stopping tobacco use
- prevention measures like regular foot checks
Reducing the risk of complications
Working with health care providers can reduce the occurrence of diabetes complications by:
- controlling levels of:
- blood lipids
- blood glucose
- blood pressure
- making sure you receive other preventive care treatments and timely advice
You can reduce the risk of diabetes complications by:
- not smoking
- being physically active
- controlling blood pressure
- eating a variety of healthy foods
- maintaining a healthy cholesterol level
- monitoring blood glucose levels and using an A1C blood test every 3 months
You should also have regular:
- eye exams
- dentist visits
- kidney function tests (every 12 months)
- foot care, including exams of your toes and skin
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