This common condition can sneak up on you — here’s what to look for so you can see it coming.
Diabetes is a serious health condition in which your blood sugar is too high for your body to process. Instead, it stays in your bloodstream and over time can lead to complications such as heart disease, kidney disease and vision loss. Diabetes has become a national health crisis, with nearly 10 percent of adults in the United States affected. Prediabetes, which occurs when blood sugar levels rise but are not yet at diabetic levels, affects one in three adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 88 percent of people with prediabetes don’t know they have it, and nearly 25 percent of people with diabetes are unaware they are affected.
Why does it seem like diabetes creeps up on people? You may not realize you have the disease because many of the symptoms are subtle and non-specific, and with prediabetes, you might not have any symptoms at all. But there are a few things you should look out for, especially if you have existing risk factors such as being overweight, not getting enough exercise, eating unhealthy foods or a having a family history of the disease.
To turn food into fuel, your body breaks down what you eat into a type of sugar called glucose, which is used for energy. To help your body use the glucose, your pancreas produces a hormone called insulin. But with diabetes, your body resists the insulin. This means you don’t absorb the glucose and end up with less energy, which may lead to a feeling of exhaustion.
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2. Thirst and increased urination
When your body isn’t absorbing the right amount of glucose, the kidneys have to work harder to filter it out. This leads your body to make more urine, which in turn makes you go to the bathroom more often. As you drink to quench your thirst, you have to pee, which can create a vicious circle.
“When sugar levels in the blood get too high, some of the extra sugar spills over into the urine made by the kidneys, and water goes along with it,” says Braden Barnett, MD, an endocrinologist at Keck Medicine of USC and clinical assistant professor of medicine (clinician educator) at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “This leads to increased urination, and the water and sugar that leave the body in the urine lead to dehydration.”
3. Weight loss and increased hunger
Although diabetes is associated with being overweight, one of the first signs may be weight loss. This is because your body is not getting energy from glucose, so it starts burning muscle and fat. And because you’re not getting enough energy from your food, you may crave more of it.
4. Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet
Having high blood sugar for an extended time can lead to nerve damage, or neuropathy, which may cause tingling, burning or a lack of sensation in your extremities.
“The very small and delicate blood vessels and nerves that serve our hands and feet operate best when blood sugars are normal; they are sensitive to high blood sugar levels, which can lead to tingling and numbness,” Dr. Barnett says.
5. Blurry vision
Diabetes can lead to trouble seeing, as high blood sugar affects fluid levels in the eye, which makes them swell and causes difficulty focusing. Over time, blood vessels in the retina can become damaged, which may lead to permanent eye problems. According to the National Eye Institute, diabetes-related vision loss is a leading cause of blindness among adults.
If you experience any of these diabetes symptoms, see your doctor to assess whether you should have your glucose level checked with a simple blood test. Prediabetes is manageable — and may even be reversible — with lifestyle changes such as a healthy diet and exercise. These changes are also used in diabetes management, possibly along with medications to regulate insulin levels.
by Tina Donvito
Concerned about your risk of developing diabetes? Make an appointment with one of our diabetes specialists at Keck Medicine of USC. If you are in the Los Angeles area, schedule an appointment or call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273).