Preventing Diabetes Complications

Diabetes is a disease that can be prevented in most cases and treated successfully in the rest. But improper management of this disease can cause serious complications in many different areas of the body. If you have diabetes or are at risk for developing it, here is a head-to-toe list of its potential complications, and suggestions to prevent them from happening to you.

Your brain: Having diabetes increases your risk of stroke. People with diabetes are 2 to 4 times more likely to suffer a stroke, which could lead to paralysis, brain damage and death. You can help prevent stroke by controlling your blood glucose, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly.

Your eyes: High blood sugar can lead to blurred vision, and eventually to diabetic retinopathy (eye disease), which can lead to blindness. However, studies show that monitoring and keeping your blood sugar and blood pressure levels within their normal ranges can delay or prevent eye problems. Work with your health care provider to develop a plan for keeping your levels under control, and undergo a thorough dilated eye exam once a year.

Your teeth: High blood sugar levels can cause gum disease, and gum disease can cause high blood sugar. This vicious circle of dental complications from diabetes can be prevented. In addition to keeping blood sugar levels under control, brush often, floss daily, and get regular dental checkups about two times per year.

Your heart: People with diabetes are more likely to have heart and blood vessel problems. If you also smoke, have high blood pressure or have high cholesterol, you are at an even greater risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), heart and blood vessel problems are the main causes of sickness and death for people with diabetes. Controlling blood glucose levels, abstaining from tobacco and monitoring blood pressure and cholesterol levels can decrease your risk for these complications.

Your lungs: Death from pneumonia or influenza complications is more likely in people who have diabetes. It is recommended that diabetics get vaccinated for pneumonia as advised by their physician and receive yearly flu shots to decrease their chances of getting sick in the first place.

Your stomach and bowels: Uncontrolled diabetes and/or high blood sugar levels can lead to nerve damage in the digestive system. This can lead to a number of problems including a condition called gastro-paresis, which delays the emptying of the stomach contents. Symptoms of nerve damage in the digestive tract can include trouble swallowing, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation and bloating.

Your kidneys: High blood sugar levels, especially when combined with high blood pressure, can cause kidney damage that requires dialysis. Keeping your blood sugar and blood pressure under control can prevent or delay this. It is also recommended that people with diabetes have their urine tested annually for protein. In addition, nerve damage from diabetes can lead to increased bladder and kidney infections, make urination difficult, and cause urinary incontinence.

Your reproductive health: Diabetes can cause erectile dysfunction (ED) in men. Today, there are several ED treatment options available; talk to your physician about what is best for you. 

In women, diabetes can cause yeast infections (vaginitis), vaginal dryness and complications during pregnancy, such as congenital birth defects, as well as delivery complications. Women with diabetes can have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies, but it takes more planning and effort. For this reason, it is especially important prevent unplanned pregnancies and to discuss any intent to have a baby with your physician before you get pregnant. Once you are pregnant, see your physician regularly for prenatal care.

Your feet: The nerve damage caused by chronic high blood sugar can cause foot problems. Patients may suffer from numbness, a burning "pins and needles" feeling, poor circulation and possibly amputation. If your feet become injured, the poor circulation can cause a delay in healing. The good news is that more than half of diabetes-related amputations can be prevented with regular exams, daily foot care, and monitoring of blood sugar levels.

Although the potential complications from diabetes may seem overwhelming, the good news is that most of these complications are preventable. Follow these simple steps to protect your body from head-to-toe:
  • Monitor your blood glucose level and keep it under control by following the plan laid out by your health care provider.
  • Eat a healthy diet. A Certified Diabetes Educator or registered dietitian in your area can design a healthy eating plan for you.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Keep your blood pressure and cholesterol in-check.
  • Keep up with recommended screening tests, as outlined by your doctor.
For more specific information or help, talk to your health care provider. The American Diabetes Association's National Call Center also offers live advice from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. EST, Monday through Friday at 1-800-DIABETES or 1-800-342-2383.
This article has been reviewed and approved by Amy L. Poetker, MS, Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator.