Diabetes mellitus, usually just called diabetes, is a metabolic disease in which a person has recurrent or persistent hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar. While there is no cure, diabetes has been a treatable disease since injected insulin was made available in the 1920s. Understanding diabetes means knowing the causes of and differences between the types of diabetes, being able to identify the symptoms of diabetes, and learning how to best manage the disease and related complications. By better understanding diabetes and how to manage it, many diabetics can live long, healthy lives.
Depending on the type of diabetes, the high blood sugar and related symptoms can be attributed to either a lack of insulin production or insulin resistance. If the body does not produce enough insulin, this is commonly called type 1, juvenile, or insulin-dependent diabetes. If the cells do not respond to the insulin that is produced in the body, this is often called adult onset or type 2 diabetes; some type 2 diabetics may have an insulin deficiency as well as insulin resistance. There is also gestational diabetes, which affects pregnant women who have never had diabetes before but experience high blood sugar levels during pregnancy. Gestational diabetes often goes away after delivery, but it also can develop into lifelong type 2 diabetes.
The type of diabetes depends on the cause. Type 2 diabetes is caused by a combination of genetics and lifestyle factors such as being overweight, eating foods high in saturated fats and sugar, and being sedentary. In fact, many people with type 2 diabetes can reverse the condition by losing weight and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Type 1 diabetes also is a blend of genetics and certain triggers, such as infections and environmental conditions, although research is still being done to uncover exactly what the triggers are. Type 1 diabetes cannot be reversed through lifestyle changes.
The high blood sugar levels associated with diabetes produce the classic symptoms of frequent urination, increased thirst, and increased hunger. Blurred vision is also a common symptom, because prolonged high blood sugar may cause glucose absorption, which changes the shape of the lenses of the eyes. Other symptoms include sudden weight loss and difficulty healing. These symptoms are often more dramatic for someone with insulin-dependent type 1 diabetes.
Diabetes without proper treatment can cause many complications, including diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), a potentially life-threatening condition resulting from an absence of insulin. Nonketotic hyperosmolar coma (HNS) or diabetic coma is another danger. In some instances, DKA may be the first measurable symptom for someone with type 1 diabetes.
Understanding diabetes means going beyond daily blood sugar and hyperglycemia issues. Serious long-term complications include cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney failure, vision complications from retinal damage, and damage to the nerves of the peripheral nervous system. Diabetics are especially prone to neuropathy in the feet.
Coping with diabetes may also involve a number of skin rashes known as diabetic dermadromes. It is important for diabetics to regularly inspect their skin, especially on their feet, for signs of rashes, infection and neuropathy. Maintaining a healthy weight and quitting smoking can reduce the probability of many diabetes complications.
Most diabetics get help with understanding diabetes and managing the condition by regularly seeing an endocrinologist, a doctor who specializes in metabolic disorders such as diabetes. With doctor supervision, type 1 diabetics generally use supplemental insulin because their bodies, specifically their pancreata, no longer make enough, if any. Insulin is available by prescription in some countries and as an over-the-counter medication in others. It’s available injected through needles or via an insulin pump inside the body. Other forms of insulin are being tested, including inhaled versions.
Type 2 diabetics generally manage the disease through diet, exercise, and taking oral medications designed to support their metabolism and insulin levels. After managing the disease for many years, some type 2 diabetics may become insulin dependent as the pancreas slows production of insulin. Regardless of type, the most important aspect of diabetes management is the ongoing tracking of blood sugar levels. This is usually done by using a blood sugar monitor to test levels several times each day, especially before and after meals. In addition, following a diabetic-friendly diet, taking medications and/or insulin as directed, and getting adequate exercise each day can help diabetics manage their blood sugar levels and overall health.
As of 2000, at least 171 million people — or 2.8 percent of the population — worldwide had diabetes, with the majority being type 2 diabetics. For more information on understanding diabetes, talk with your doctor or join an online community for diabetes support. There are numerous books available on understanding diabetes, and reliable information also is available from reputable non-profit groups.