Here’s the truth – having diabetes elevates your risk of developing other medical conditions. The good news? By keeping your blood glucose levels within a safe range, eating balanced meals, and getting regular exercise, you’re setting yourself up to live well with diabetes! And by staying on top of problem areas such as your eyes, feet, kidneys, heart and mouth, you will go a long way towards safeguarding yourself against complications.
Abnormalities caused by high blood glucose levels (hyperglycaemia) can lead to:
- Early onset of cataracts (cloudy areas in the lenses of your eyes)
- Glaucoma (poor drainage of fluid in the eyes, which affects vision)
- Diabetic retinopathy, or damage to the micro blood vessels in your eyes, which, in extreme cases, can lead to blindness.
Get it checked: A thorough annual eye examination can detect deterioration in the blood vessels and nerves that nourish and control your vision. Ask your GP to perform one or get a referral to an ophthalmologist. Between doctors’ visits, watch out for blurriness, black spots, halos around lights, flashes of light or ‘holes’ in your vision. These are a call to action that you need to check in with your care team.
Experiencing numbness, tingling or burning pains in your legs and feet at night are signs you’ve suffered nerve damage and need to see your GP or a podiatrist as soon as possible. Also, getting cramps in your legs after walking short distances, your feet are unusually cold, or you have cuts that are slow to heal, may mean that your circulation is deteriorating. Nerve damage and poor circulation leave your feet susceptible to serious infections, which can start from just a little cut or scratch.
Get it checked: Your GP should check your feet at least once a year. If you’re experiencing diabetes-related complications, your GP may refer you to a podiatrist for check-ups and treatment at six- to eight-weekly intervals.
To prevent complications, or to reduce their severity, the experts recommend regular exercise to improve peripheral circulation. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day – such as walking briskly, or playing doubles tennis – most days of the week.
Smoking inhibits circulation, so quitting is also vital to maintaining foot health. And remember to check your feet every day for cuts, blisters, development of calluses or cracked skin, bruised skin where shoes have rubbed, unusual swelling or changes in foot shape or nail colour. Make an appointment with your GP or podiatrist if these changes arise.
High blood glucose levels (hyperglycaemia) can cause damage to your kidneys’ micro filters. The more damage that occurs, the less effectively they work – this is the main contributing factor in the development of diabetic kidney disease. It’s vital to stay on top of your kidney health, as poor kidney function can lead to problems with blood pressure and cholesterol.
Get it checked: Ask your GP to perform a diabetic kidney disease test once a year. Maintain your kidney health between visits with regular exercise. This not only improves your blood glucose levels, but also your circulation and cardiovascular efficiency, which all contribute to preventing kidney disease. If you’re on medication for high blood pressure, taking it consistently is also important.
In addition to having diabetes, carrying extra weight around your waist rather than your hips can increase your risk of developing heart disease. That’s because abdominal fat can increase the production of LDL (bad) cholesterol. When cholesterol builds up on the walls of your blood vessels, it reduces circulation, increases blood pressure and also raises your risk of having a stroke. Having high LDL cholesterol also contributes to your heart disease risk.
Get it checked: Schedule yourself in for cholesterol and blood pressure checks every six months with your GP. This is important for detecting and correcting high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Making dietary changes, such as reducing your intake of animal fats, and taking certain medications can help you get your numbers back to normal.
See a dietitian if you’re overweight – especially if those extra kilos are in the stomach are. Also seek help if you’re a smoker – smoking doubles your risk of developing heart disease, since both smoking and diabetes narrow the blood vessels.
Your oral health is closely tied to your blood glucose levels. Having erratic or irregular blood glucose levels reduces your resistance to infection and gives a higher risk of tooth problems and gum disease. Bad breath, bleeding gums and loose teeth are signs you may have gum disease or oral thrush and need immediate medical help.
Get it checked: Twice-yearly visits to the dentist will help in the early detection of problems. On a day-to-day basis, maintaining good oral hygiene – twice-daily brushing and flossing – will help keep your teeth in shape. If you tend to have a dry mouth, drink water more frequently and chew sugar-free gum to boost saliva production. This helps to remove or dilute decay-promoting sugar that can be present in high concentrations in people with diabetes.
Diabetes can make your skin more prone to injury, and also reduce its ability to heal. Why? When you have too much glucose in your bloodstream, your body tries to remove the excess with increased urination. This leads to a loss of body fluid, including moisture from your skin, leaving it dry and prone to cracking. Plus, having high blood glucose levels (hyperglycaemia) reduces the blood supply to your skin, which can result in nerve damage. This can make it difficult to feel pain or notice infections, especially in hard-to-see areas like the soles of your feet.
Get it checked: Ask your GP to examine your skin if you have any concerns about infections, or you have new/recurring problems. For more specialised advice, ask your GP for a referral to a dermatologist or check in to see a podiatrist for foot-related problems.
Keep your skin healthy by applying a fragrance-free, hypoallergenic moisturiser to your face, arms, legs and feet at least once a day – this will prevent it from becoming dehydrated and cracking. Don’t apply moisturiser between your toes, as this can encourage fungus to grow. Choose clothing made of natural fabrics such as linen and cotton. These will allow your skin to breathe more than synthetic fabrics. And avoid having long, hot showers as they can strip your skin of its natural oils and leave it more prone to becoming dehydrated and cracking.
There are strong links between type 1 and 2 diabetes and incontinence. Why? Because:
- Having high blood glucose levels (hyperglycaemia) can lead to increased frequency of urination
- Being overweight can put stress on the pelvic floor muscles
- Nerve damage caused by conditions like diabetic neuropathy may decrease your ability to sense movement in the bladder or bowel
- Being constipated (which is something that many people with diabetes experience) increases your risk of faecal incontinence
Get it checked: Speak with your GP about incontinence as soon as you start experiencing it – remember that they are there to help, not to judge. To help avoid further bladder and bowel problems, drink eight glasses of water and eat fibre-rich foods each day. Exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight can also help, as can treating infections promptly, urinating only when your bladder is full, and avoiding straining on the toilet.