Diabetes should never be a death sentence. However, the sad truth is that many of us know someone who has lost their sight, a limb, or even their life due to diabetes. Tragedies like these can be prevented by proper treatment and patient education. This article explains what patients need to know about diabetes, including the different types, symptoms, complications, and more.
Despite being an increasingly common medical condition, diabetes is not a diagnosis anyone wants to hear and it should never be taken lightly. Everyone knows it means a life sentence of counting carbs, eating healthy, measuring blood sugar and following an exercise program. Beyond that, however, most people don’t understand what diabetes is. Read on to learn everything you need to know.
Diabetes, more appropriately known as diabetes mellitus, is a condition characterized by chronically elevated blood glucose (sugar) levels. In a healthy person, the pancreas releases insulin, and the insulin helps glucose enter the cells of the body to be used as energy. In someone with diabetes, however, this process fails. The pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin, so glucose remains in the bloodstream, and the body’s cells can’t use it for energy.
There are three types of diabetes mellitus: type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and gestational diabetes. However, diabetes mellitus should not be confused with diabetes insipidus, an entirely different condition, unrelated to blood glucose.
- Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is also known as juvenile diabetes. It is nearly always apparent in young people. It is an autoimmune condition that results in a non-functioning pancreas that can’t make insulin.
- Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes results from factors other than autoimmune disease. It is associated with obesity, a poor diet, and a sedentary lifestyle, although genetics may also be a factor. In mild cases, the pancreas remains somewhat functional, and the condition can be controlled by a strict diet and exercise regime and/or oral medications. However, insulin injections become necessary if the disease progresses.
- Gestational Diabetes
As the name suggests, gestational diabetes is diabetes that is apparent during pregnancy. It often resolves after the baby is born, but people who have had gestational diabetes are at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Additionally, gestational diabetes can be a stressor for both the mother and her child.
Blood Sugar Tests
There are three important blood sugar tests to know about. All involve testing a sample of blood, but each has a unique purpose.
A fasting blood glucose test is often used to diagnose diabetes. A normal fasting blood glucose level is 60-100 mg/dL, and measurements repeatedly above this range are typically indicative of diabetes or at least a pre-diabetic state.
- Capillary Blood Glucose
Capillary blood glucose tests, sometimes called bedside glucose monitoring, is the finger-prick method that most diabetics are intimately familiar with. It is used to keep track of blood glucose levels throughout the day and, even more importantly, to determine what dose of insulin is required to maintain blood sugar at an appropriate level.
The A1C test, also known as the hemoglobin A1c, HbA1c, or Glycohemoglobin test, is used by doctors to determine a person’s average blood glucose level over the past three months. The A1C test is important because it gives doctors an idea of the patient’s overall control over blood sugar levels and degree of compliance with prescribed treatments. For people with diabetes, the goal A1C level is usually 7% or lower, although a normal, nondiabetic level is less than 5.7%.
Hypoglycemia and Hyperglycemia
Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, can result from eating too little or from injecting too much insulin. Symptoms include lethargy, confusion, sweating/clamminess, feeling cold, and feeling shaky or jittery. In severe cases, seizure, coma, or death can occur. Therefore, it is essential to have juice, hard candy, or some other form of simple carbohydrate available, to get blood sugar levels back to normal quickly.
Hyperglycemia, on the other hand, is a blood sugar level that is too high. This occurs when too much is eaten, or too little insulin is taken. It is also present in undiagnosed diabetes. Symptoms include hunger, excessive thirst, frequent urination, trouble thinking, blurred vision, and more. Glucose may also be present in the urine.
Complications of Chronic High Blood Sugar Levels
Diabetes is dangerous because the body isn’t designed to handle chronically high levels of glucose in the blood. Also, cells can die or be damaged if insulin isn’t present to facilitate the transport of their energy source, glucose, through their outer membranes.
Of particular significance, high blood sugar levels can damage the eyes, kidneys, nerves, blood vessels, and more. Damaged blood vessels reduce blood flow, meaning wounds are slower to heal and ulcers can easily form, especially in the extremities of the body, such as the feet. Even worse, damaged nerves (neuropathy) may mean a diabetic individual won’t feel the presence of a wound until severe damage has been done. High blood sugar also takes such a toll on the eyes (retinopathy) and can cause blindness to occur. Further, the kidneys are damaged when excess glucose becomes too much for the blood filtering apparatus to handle.
Also, two life-threatening conditions can develop if blood sugar levels get incredibly high. They are called DKA (diabetic ketoacidosis) and HHS (hyperosmolar hyperglycemic state), and both can be fatal. Diabetes need not be a death sentence, but, sadly, it can be when people don’t receive enough education on managing the disease or are unable to access the appropriate healthcare resources.
There are two main categories of diabetes medications: insulin injections and oral medications. Oral medications work by stimulating insulin production or preventing the liver from releasing too much glucose into the bloodstream. Insulin injections primarily do the work of the pancreas, supplying an appropriate amount of insulin. Insulin comes in different forms, some of which are fast-acting, and some of which act so slowly they only need to be given once or twice a day. Another feature of insulin is it can be delivered by a traditional subcutaneous injection, an insulin pen, or an insulin pump.
In conclusion, diabetes is a serious disease, and it is not something to be taken lightly. Serious complications can result, such as hypoglycemia, blindness, and diabetic ketoacidosis. In severe cases, death can occur. Therefore, people who are diagnosed with any of the three types of diabetes should work closely with their healthcare providers, follow treatment instructions, and live a healthy lifestyle that includes a nutritious diet and adequate exercise.