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Complications of diabetes

High blood sugar levels can seriously damage parts of your body, including your feet and your eyes. These are called the complications of diabetes. Do you know how to reduce your risk of developing them?

We don’t need to tell you that diabetes is complicated. It can cause all sorts of problems. From having a hypo when your sugars are too low, to long-term lasting damage to your eye sight, diabetes can do serious harm. And there are lots of different types of diabetes complications.

But did you know that you can prevent or delay lots of these problems? They’re not inevitable. Keeping blood sugarblood pressure and blood fats under control will hugely help to reduce your risk of developing complications. This means going to your diabetes health checks and knowing how to look after yourself between appointments.

We’ll help you arm yourself with the information and support you need to take action today and live well with diabetes. 

What are the complications of diabetes?

You might hear your healthcare team talk about two types of diabetes complications – chronic and acute. Chronic complications are long-term problems that can develop gradually, and can lead to serious damage if they go unchecked. Acute complications can happen at any time, and they can lead to other complications too.

Explore the graphic to find out more.

Chronic complications 

Acute complications

  • Hypos– when your blood sugars are too low
  • Hypers– when your blood sugars are too high
  • Hyperosmolar Hyperglycaemic State (HHS)– a life-threatening emergency that only happens in people with type 2 diabetes. It’s brought on by severe dehydration and very high blood sugars.
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) – a life-threatening emergency where the lack of insulin and high blood sugars leads to a build-up of ketones.

What causes diabetes complications?

High sugar levels in your blood over a long period of time can seriously damage your blood vessels. If your blood vessels aren’t working properly, blood can’t travel to the parts of your body it needs to. This means your nerves won’t work properly either and means you lose feeling in parts of your body. Once you’ve damaged the blood vessels and nerves in one part of your body, you’re more likely to develop similar problems in other parts of your body. So if your feet are damaged, serious heart problems can follow. 

We know that the higher your HbA1c level, the more you’re at risk of developing complications. Even a slightly high HbA1c increases your risk. 

But it’s not just about blood sugars. High blood pressure, smoking and a lot of fat in your blood (cholesterol) can all damage your blood vessels and put you even more at risk.

How do I prevent or delay complications?

You can prevent or delay the complications of diabetes. But you need to take action and it’s all about managing your diabetes well.

Stopping smoking and lowering your HbA1c levels, blood fats and blood pressure will prevent or slow down these complications. Giving up smoking is the best thing you can do if you have diabetes because smoking makes it even harder for blood to flow around your body.

Keeping a close eye on these levels and understanding your numbers will help you take control of your health. We know it’s not always as simple as that, but we’re here to help.

A good place to start is knowing what essential diabetes health checks you should be getting. Did you know there are 15? We call these the 15 Healthcare Essentials. You’re entitled to all of these at least once a year. Knowing what these checks are and what to do between appointments will help reduce your risk of developing complications.

If you have chronic complications 

When you have one chronic complication, you’re much more at risk of developing other complications. So if your blood vessels are damaged in your feet for example, the damage can happen to other parts of your body like your kidneys and heart too. This means you need to stay on top of your health checks and blood sugar levels when you’re managing other problems.

This is serious, that’s why we want you to have all the facts so you can prevent complications from getting worse. 

How we can help

If you would like to talk through your worries and concerns, please do call our helpline for specialist information and advice. You will be given as much time as you need and although the service is confidential, you can choose to remain anonymous if you prefer. Our online forum is also a place you can talk about and share your concerns with others who have had similar experiences.

We're also investing in research to help us identify and protect against complications. We're determined to bring about improvements to treatments and care in people with diabetes, having already set up the first diabetes foot clinic in the UK, helping to reduce amputations.

Find out more about our life-changing research 

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