Common Diabetes Complications & Associated Health Issues

As there is no known cure for diabetes, the condition must be carefully managed to help minimise the risk of associated health issues or complications including heart attack, stroke, kidney problems, nerve damage or problems affecting the eyes, feet, skin and gums.

Both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes present the risk of short and long-term complications if they are not managed effectively. These associated health issues are primarily connected to poor blood glucose control, so it is essential that you work with your GP or diabetes educator to work out the best management plan for your condition.

The intention of this article is to equip you with a better understanding of some of the consequences and potentially serious complications that may arise if diabetes is poorly managed.

Complications associated with Type 1 diabetes

  • Hypoglycaemia

    Hypoglycaemia is a short-term complication arising from low blood glucose levels. It occurs when too much insulin has been administered or has not been planned for appropriately around meal times and/ or exercise.

    Early signs of hypoglycaemia may include hunger, nausea, headaches, and/or fatigue.  However, symptoms can also include sweating, anxiety, numbness in the extremities (fingers, toes and lips), and more serious symptoms such as seizures and unconsciousness. Depending on how low the blood sugar level is, hypoglycaemia can be classed as mild, moderate or severe.

    If you think you may be experiencing symptoms, seek medical assistance immediately.

  • Diabetic Ketoacidosis

    Also shortened to DKA, diabetic ketoacidosis is a serious short-term complication arising when high levels of ketones (blood acids) are produced by the body. This happens when there is not enough insulin in your body to help glucose enter the cells, leading to fat being broken down into fuel and releasing acids into the bloodstream.

    Symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis include excessive thirst, vomiting/sickness, weakness/tiredness, shortness of breath and a fruity scent on the breath.

    If you are experiencing symptoms you can also check your blood glucose level at home or test your urine for ketones. If the results confirm DKA you should seek help from your GP or look for emergency care if you can’t reach your GP for advice.  If you don’t have an at-home test you should seek immediate medical assistance.

  • Eye, Kidney and Nerve Disease

    Poor glucose levels can lead to damage in the small blood vessels in your body, leading to longer-term complications relating to vision, kidney function and nerve health. This may include cataracts developing in your eyes, damage to the retina, loss of vision, kidney disease or failure, or nerve damage – often referred to as diabetic neuropathy.

  • Heart complications

    Another longer term associated health issue is a build-up of plaque in the large blood vessels, potentially resulting in a heart attack. Heart healthy food and lifestyle choices may go some way to helping mitigate the risk of damage to the heart’s vessels: don’t smoke, keep your blood pressure down and don’t consume too many fatty foods.

Complications associated with Type 2 diabetes

As well as hypoglycaemia, diabetic neuropathy, issues with eyes, kidney and nerve disease, and heart complications outlined above, Type 2 diabetes also presents the risk of Hyperosmolar Hyperglycemic Nonketotic Syndrome.

  • Hyperosmolar hyperglycemic nonketotic syndrome (HHNS)

    Hyperosmolar hyperglycemic nonketotic syndrome (HHNS) is a rare but serious condition that occurs when blood glucose levels are far too high. It is a very serious condition that, if left untreated, could lead to death.

    Elderly or sick people are most at risk of HHNS with the first sign often presenting as frequent urination as the body attempts to rid itself of excess glucose. Many people will then experience excessive thirst (dehydration) as a sub-condition but may not be able to keep liquids down long enough to re-hydrate the body – especially if they are sick. This results in glucose levels continuing to climb and may reach such high levels that a person may go into a diabetic coma.

    Effective blood glucose management may help eliminate the risk of HHNS so it’s important to keep a close eye on your glucose levels, especially when you are ill. You should seek immediate medical advice if you think you may be experiencing HHNS.

Managing Diabetes

The implications outlined above are the worst-case scenarios and most people with diabetes lead relatively normal lives. However it is crucial that people with diabetes, their families, friends and colleagues all understand the seriousness of the condition in order to help them best manage their health on a daily basis.

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