Diabetes is a serious condition that affects millions of people. Characterized by abnormally high blood sugar levels, diabetes changes the way the body creates energy. While there are different types of diabetes and varying levels of severity, the primary symptoms of diabetes remain the same.
It’s important to stay knowledgeable about these initial warning signs so that you can get help when you need it. Living with diabetes can be life-threatening — but not if you’re receiving proper treatment. Learn about the early symptoms of diabetes so that you can manage them safely and effectively before future problems progress.
People with diabetes cannot effectively create or manage their own insulin — a hormone that regulates blood sugar (glucose) and helps the body convert it into energy. Without proper insulin regulation, people with diabetes end up with high blood sugar levels that can lead to health risks and complications.
While this condition is serious, it’s also common: 422 million people across the world experience diabetes(1).
Having chronically high blood sugar is problematic because it can lead to additional health problems that affect major organs. Since diabetes most commonly affects the blood vessels, it can cause damage to the heart, kidneys and eyes. People with diabetes also struggle with nerve damage and foot problems, as well as reproductive anddigestive system damage.
There are two main types of diabetes: Type 1 and type 2. Understanding the differences between these two types is crucial for understanding which type you might have — and how to get the right treatment.
The first type of diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes, most often manifests in young children and teenagers. However, type 1 diabetes can affect anyone at any time.
Type 1 diabetes is classified as an autoimmune disease because it occurs when a person’s immune system attacks islet cells in the pancreas, which are responsible for creating insulin. As a result, people with type 1 diabetes can no longer create their own insulin, and lack of treatment results in serious damage to the body’s organs.
There is no specific cause for type 1 diabetes, though it is considered a genetic disease. People with parents or other relatives with the disease are more likely to develop it.
Unlike type 1 diabetes, type 2 tends to manifest in people over 45. People with type 2 diabetes have insulin resistance, meaning their bodies either don’t respond to insulin properly or they don’t produce enough.
With type 2 diabetes, your body either rejects insulin or doesn't produce enough to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
Type 2 diabetes is believed to be caused by a combination of factors. Obesity, whether due to genetics or other factors, is a primary cause. Additional causes of diabetes include poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle(2).
Pregnant women can also develop gestational diabetes while carrying their child. This is a result of hormonal changes, which can make it challenging for the mother’s cells to use insulin (insulin resistance). While pregnancy-related insulin resistance generally goes away soon after childbirth, women who are overweight or obese are more likely to struggle with persistent insulin resistance during and after pregnancy(3). If gestational diabetes remains long after a woman has given birth, the condition becomes classified as type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes can take time to be diagnosed, especially since the symptoms can be mild at the beginning for some people. However, learning to identify the early symptoms of diabetes is crucial for getting you or your loved one proper treatment. Here’s a look at the three most common signs of diabetes, plus additional warning signals to watch for.
People with diabetes tend to feel more hungry than usual, despite an increased intake of food. Diabetes causes increased appetite (polyphagia) because it prevents the body from allowing glucose into the bloodstream.
The blood needs glucose to give the body energy from food. Without it, the body continues to send hunger signals to the brain to encourage the person to eat. Unfortunately, this process will continue until the person’s insulin levels are regulated through medication or lifestyle changes(4).
When a person with diabetes experiences high blood sugar levels, their body will increase the output of bodily fluids to help flush the excess glucose. This is why diabetes causes frequent urination — it’s the body’s only way of regulating itself(5).
The increased urge to urinate is a common early sign of diabetes, so it’s important to notice when it starts to cause disruptions to your everyday life. For example, waking up frequently throughout the night to pee could be a sign that your body is experiencing excess glucose levels.
Diabetes causes excessive thirst, or hyperphagia, in part due to high blood sugar levels. It’s also directly tied to the increased urination experienced by people with diabetes. As the body attempts to clear itself from excess glucose in the blood, it also needs to stay hydrated.
This continues in a cycle: The more a person has to urinate, the more thirsty they get. In turn, they continue to feel like they can never reach a place of homeostasis in the body(6).
Excessive hunger, frequent urination and increased thirst are the three most common early symptoms of diabetes, but other signs exist.
Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes can cause:
Each type of diabetes also has its own symptoms. Additional diabetes symptoms unique to type 1 include:
Additional type 2 diabetes symptoms include:
You may only have a few of these symptoms at a time, and their onset may be slow. People with prediabetes, or high blood sugar, tend to have no symptoms at all before their condition worsens and type 1 or type 2 diabetes begins to manifest.
That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to small changes, like blurry vision or increased urination, that disrupt your daily life(7).
Diabetes is a serious condition and it can be life-threatening. However, it doesn’t have to be. Making the right lifestyle changes can help you manage diabetes and prevent it from further impacting your life.
People with type 1 diabetes will likely need to supplement insulin from external sources, either by using an insulin pump or by taking insulin shots. Insulin pumps are more manageable for many people and they provide more flexibility in daily life. Additionally, type 1 diabetes patients need to use a lancing device to check their insulin levels multiple times a day.
The safest way to keep track of your insulin levels is to check them four times a day: In the morning before breakfast, before a meal, two hours after a meal and at bedtime. While different people may have different blood sugar targets depending on their circumstances and personal health history, a general target number for before a meal is between 80 and 130. After a meal, it should be below 180(8).
Healthy lifestyle changes can also help people with type 1 diabetes manage their treatment regimen. Lifestyle choices that can help manage diabetes include:
Management of type 2 diabetes is similar to type 1 diabetes, especially in relation to blood sugar regulation. Even if someone with type 2 diabetes doesn’t take insulin, they likely have other medications that can help control blood sugar levels. Someone with type 2 diabetes will need to play closer attention to their cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
It is equally important for anyone with type 2 diabetes to stay physically active and maintain a healthy diet. High-sugar foods like soda, candy, pastries and processed snacks can elevate blood sugar to unsafe levels. Portion control can also help, as it reduces sharp spikes in blood sugar levels.
Similarly, exercise helps reduce blood sugar and lower blood pressure levels. Exercising often reduces stress and promotes healthy food choices, which in turn helps manage diabetes symptoms.
Eating healthier and exercising more are two simple changes that can help promote weight loss, which in turn decreases blood sugar and reduces dangerous symptoms. Some people who see positive results with these changes (and can maintain them) can work with their doctor to reduce or eliminate the need for additional medication(9).
Unmanaged diabetes can cause serious and lasting damage to the body. Specifically, it can affect the eyes (diabetic retinopathy) and kidneys (diabetic nephropathy). Diabetic retinopathy is when the eye’s small blood vessels swell and leak, leading to blurred and obscured vision(10). If left untreated over time, this condition can result in blindness.
Diabetic nephropathy is another serious complication associated with uncontrolled diabetes. A broad term for kidney disease, nephropathy occurs when the kidney’s blood vessels, which are used to make urine, become too damaged to function properly, meaning the body can’t flush waste as well as it should. This results in the blood protein, albumin, building up in blood and urine, which in turn leads to increased blood pressure. When the kidneys can no longer filter waste from the blood, a person would need dialysis (and sometimes a transplant) in order to survive(11).
Untreated diabetes can also lead to a life-threatening condition called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). This condition is characterized by the buildup of ketones (chemicals created when the body converts fat into energy) in the blood, which increases blood’s acidity. While ketones are naturally-occurring, too many of them can lead to blood toxicity(12). DKA can also decrease potassium levels, leading to muscle weakness and changes to heart rhythm. It can also cause an increase in fluid buildup in the lungs, as well as brain swelling. Without immediate medical attention, unmanaged DKA and its side effects can result in death.(13).
Diabetes is a common condition that can have damaging effects on the body if left untreated. High blood sugar doesn’t just cause excessive thirst, urination, and hunger; it can also lead to severe organ damage.
Diabetes can’t always be prevented, especially when it occurs as a result of genetic conditions. However, people with both types of diabetes can make healthy lifestyle choices to manage stress, eat better, exercise more and stay in control of their blood sugar levels.
Learning to identify the early symptoms of diabetes can help you get the treatment and support you need.
Michelle Polizzi - Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice