Diabetes

Toggle: English / Spanish

Definition

Diabetes is a chronic disease in which the body cannot regulate the amount of sugar in the blood.

Diabetes

Alternative Names

Diabetes - type 1; Diabetes - type 2; Diabetes - gestational; Type 1 diabetes; Type 2 diabetes; Gestational diabetes; Diabetes mellitus

Causes

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas to control blood sugar. Diabetes can be caused by too little insulin, resistance to insulin, or both.

To understand diabetes, it is important to first understand the normal process by which food is broken down and used by the body for energy. Several things happen when food is digested:

  • A sugar called glucose enters the bloodstream. Glucose is a source of fuel for the body.
  • An organ called the pancreas makes insulin. The role of insulin is to move glucose from the bloodstream into muscle, fat, and liver cells, where it can be stored or used as fuel.
Food and insulin release

People with diabetes have high blood sugar because their body cannot move sugar from the blood into muscle and fat cells to be burned or stored for energy, and because their liver makes too much glucose and releases it into the blood. This is because either:

  • Their pancreas does not make enough insulin
  • Their cells do not respond to insulin normally
  • Both of the above

There are 2 major types of diabetes. The causes and risk factors are different for each type:

Type I diabetes
  • Type 1 diabetes can occur at any age, but it is most often diagnosed in children, teens, or young adults. In this disease, the body makes little or no insulin. This is because the pancreas cells that make insulin stop working. Daily injections of insulin are needed. The exact cause is unknown.
  • Type 2 diabetes is much more common. It most often occurs in adulthood, but because of high obesity rates, children and teens are now being diagnosed with this disease. Some people with type 2 diabetes do not know they have it. With type 2 diabetes, the body is resistant to insulin and doesn't use insulin as well as it should.
  • There are other causes of diabetes, and some people cannot be classified as type 1 or type 2.

Gestational diabetes is high blood sugar that develops at any time during pregnancy in a woman who does not have diabetes.

If your parent, brother, or sister has diabetes, you may be more likely to develop the disease.

Symptoms

A high blood sugar level can cause several symptoms, including:

  • Blurry vision
  • Excess thirst
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent urination
  • Hunger
  • Weight loss

Because type 2 diabetes develops slowly, some people with high blood sugar have no symptoms.

Symptoms of type 1 diabetes develop over a short period. People may be very sick by the time they are diagnosed.

Type 2 Diabetes foot and leg care

After many years, diabetes can lead to other serious problems. These problems are known as diabetes complications, and include:

Diabetic retinopathy

Exams and Tests

A urine analysis may show high blood sugar. But a urine test alone does not diagnose diabetes.

Your health care provider may suspect that you have diabetes if your blood sugar level is higher than 200 mg/dL. To confirm the diagnosis, one or more of the following tests must be done.

Blood tests:

  • Fasting blood glucose level: Diabetes is diagnosed if the fasting glucose level is higher than 126 mg/dL on 2 different tests. Levels between 100 and 126 mg/dL are called impaired fasting glucose or pre-diabetes. These levels are risk factors for type 2 diabetes.
  • Hemoglobin A1c (A1C) test: Normal is less than 5.7%; prediabetes is 5.7 to 6.4%; and diabetes is 6.5% or higher.
  • Oral glucose tolerance test: Diabetes is diagnosed if the glucose level is higher than 200 mg/dL 2 hours after drinking a sugar drink (This test is used more often for type 2 diabetes).

Screening for type 2 diabetes in people who have no symptoms is recommended for:

  • Overweight children who have other risk factors for diabetes, starting at age 10 and repeated every 3 years
  • Overweight adults (BMI of 25 or higher) who have other risk factors
  • Adults over age 45, repeated every 3 years

Treatment

Type 2 diabetes may be reversed with lifestyle changes, especially losing weight with exercise and by eating healthier foods. Some cases of type 2 diabetes can also be improved with weight-loss surgery.

There is no cure for type 1 diabetes.

Treating either type

 or involves medicines, diet, and exercise to control blood sugar level.

Everyone with diabetes should receive proper education and support about the best ways to manage their diabetes. Ask your provider about seeing a diabetes nurse educator.

Getting better control over your blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure levels helps reduce the risk of kidney disease, eye disease, nervous system disease, heart attack, and stroke.

To prevent diabetes complications, visit your provider at least 2 to 4 times a year. Talk about any problems you are having. Follow your provider's instructions on managing your diabetes.

Using a multi-dimensional approach to treat diabetes

Support Groups

Many resources can help you understand more about diabetes. If you have diabetes, you can also learn ways to manage your condition and prevent diabetes complications.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Diabetes is a life-long disease and there is no cure.

Tight control of blood glucose can prevent or delay diabetes complications. But these problems can occur, even in people with good diabetes control.

Possible Complications

After many years, diabetes can lead to serious health problems:

  • You could have eye problems, including trouble seeing (especially at night), and light sensitivity. You could become blind.
  • Your feet and skin can develop sores and infections. After a long time, your foot or leg may need to be amputated. Infection can also cause pain and itching in other parts of the body.
  • Diabetes may make it harder to control your blood pressure and cholesterol. This can lead to a heart attack, stroke, and other problems. It can become harder for blood to flow to your legs and feet.
  • Nerves in your body can get damaged, causing pain, tingling, and numbness.
  • Because of nerve damage, you could have problems digesting the food you eat. You could feel weakness or have trouble going to the bathroom. Nerve damage can make it harder for men to have an erection.
  • High blood sugar and other problems can lead to kidney damage. Your kidneys may not work as well as they used to. They may even stop working so that you need dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Prevention

Keeping an ideal body weight and an active lifestyle may prevent or delay the start of type 2 diabetes. Some medicines can also be used to delay or prevent the start of type 2 diabetes.

At this time, type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented. But there is promising research that shows type 1 diabetes may be delayed in some high risk people.

References

American Diabetes Association. Standards of medical care in diabetes -- 2015. Diabetes Care. 2015;38:S1-S76. PMID: 25537706 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25537706.

Cagliero E. Diabetes and long-term complications. In: Jameson JL, De Groot LJ, de Kretser DM, et al, eds. Endocrinology: Adult and Pediatric. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 51.

Delli AJ, Lernmark A. Type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes mellitus. In: Jameson JL, De Groot LJ, de Kretser DM, et al, eds. Endocrinology: Adult and Pediatric. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 39.

Dungan KM. Management of type 2 diabetes mellitus. In: Jameson JL, De Groot LJ, de Kretser DM, et al, eds. Endocrinology: Adult and Pediatric. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 48.

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 7/24/2015
  • Brent Wisse, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Metabolism, Endocrinology & Nutrition, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch)

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- 2013 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.