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Diabetes Complications Overview

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Diabetes Complications

By Nina Nazor

A key goal of diabetes treatment is to prevent the development of chronic complications because, high blood glucose levels over time can affect the arteries and blood vasels that take that blood to our organs, causing problems in the heart, eyes, kidneys, and nerves.

We don't know for certain the cause of these complications, but it seems that high glucose levels affect the large and small arteries.

Heart Disease

Diabetes doubles a person's risk of developing heart disease. In this case, cholesterol plaque builds-up in the arteries interfering with the normal blood supply to the heart, and that can cause a heart attack.

Also, diabetes is closely related with high blood pressure and obesity, other risks factors for heart disease.

Kidney Disease

Kidney disease is another of the chronic complications of diabetes. Kidneys are our blood filters and keep proper fluid balance in our body. When the fine arteries of the kidneys get damaged by the high blood glucose concentrations over a long time, they start passing proteins and other substances to the urine, while letting a lot of those waste products in the blood, because they cannot filter well anymore. The final consequence of this problem is kidney insufficiency and the treatment for this is dialysis. However, proper diabetes control can reduce the risk. Another cause for kidney problems in diabetes, and also for eye problems is high blood pressure. Therefore, regular blood pressure monitoring and good control can help prevent kidney disease.

Urinary tract infections can also be a cause of kidney problems. Microorganisms love high blood glucose and when the kidney tries to get rid of that extra glucose through the urine, bacteria and yeast can reproduce so happily that cause infections. High glucose concentrations can damage the nerves that control the bladder, and the person can find it difficult to empty his or her bladder completely. Then microorganisms start growing in the unemptied bladder and urinary tract, causing infection. The symptoms of a urinary tract infection are frequent urination, pain and burning sensation when urinating, blood in the urine, and pain in the lower abdomen and/or back. If the infection reaches the kidneys can cause great damage.

Eye Problems

Diabetes is one of the main causes of vision loss, but a good diabetes and eye examinations every year can help decrease the risk.

When blood glucose is very high changes in the fluid of the lens of the eye can cause blurred vision. Diabetes can also damage the function of the optic nerve, which controls eyesight, causing blurred vision.

Cataract and glaucoma are frequent among people with diabetes. Cataracts consists of a cloud that forms in the the normally clear lens of the eye. In glaucoma the pressure within the eye can affect the optic nerve, which function is to send the images we see to the brain. That is why a yearly exam is so important to detect any of these problems on time and stop them from growing.

Diabetic Retinopathy

Retinopathy is a disease of the retina, the tissue sensible to light located at the back of our eyes. In this case the tiny vessels that supply blood to the retina get swollen and leak fluid. This causes new blood vessels to grow, trying to keep supplying the precious blood to the retina, but causing bleed into the vitreous, the transparent gel that fills the eye.

Legs and Feet

Peripheral vascular disease is caused when blood vessels cannot supply blood to the legs and feet, due to fat deposits and damages in the walls of the arteries. Also, high blood glucose affects the nerves, specially the longest that run from the spine to the feet, decreasing sensitivity in legs and feet.

Every day foot care and visiting the doctor regularly are the key to detect any wound in the feet or the legs that can get infected. Any wound requires immediate medical attention in order to stop any infection. If the infection spreads it can develop in gangrene and then the doctor has to remove the tissue, usually with an amputation of the infected part of the body.

Other Effects of Diabetic Neuropathy

Nerves control practically all the functions in our body, and when high glucose damages the nerves, digestive problems like too long digestion or diarrhea can arise, lack of erection in men or inadequate sexual response in women, irregular heart beats, hypoglycemia without symptoms and many other conditions can happen. But remember that a good diabetes control reduces the risk in up to 75%.

Skin and Oral Infections

People with diabetes have a higher risk of developing skin and oral infections. Women with diabetes develop vaginal infections often. Detecting and treating infections on time can help avoid problems. So every 6 months a visit to the dentist and at least a yearly visit to the gynecologist, as well as keeping blood glucose under control, are very important.


Very high blood glucose levels can cause dehydration and a coma. The opposite of high blood glucose, very low blood glucose or hypoglycemia, can also endanger the life if the brain is deprived of its main fuel, glucose. Both situations require immediate medical attention to preserve the life of the person. Remember that you should always dial 911 in case of a medical emergency.

Adapted from the American Diabetes Association: Diabetes Complications

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