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Diabetes: the basics

Diabetes (otherwise known by the scientific name diabetes mellitus) is a complicated condition and there are many different types of diabetes. Here we'll take you through everything you need to know.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a serious condition where your blood glucose level is too high. It can happen when your body doesn't produce enough insulin or the insulin it produces isn't effective. Or, when your body can't produce any insulin at all.

Watch our two-minute video which explains diabetes:

For a version of this video in Gujarati, Punjabi, Sylheti or Urdu, go to our YouTube playlist.

Types of diabetes

There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2.

When you’ve got type 1 diabetes, you can’t make any insulin at all. If you’ve got type 2 diabetes, which is the most common, it’s a bit different. The insulin you make either can’t work effectively, or you can’t produce enough of it. They’re different conditions, but they’re both serious. 

There are lots of other types of diabetes. They include gestational diabetes, which some women may go on to develop during pregnancy, type 3c, MODY and Latent Autoimmune Diabetes in Adults (LADA).  

In all types of diabetes, glucose can’t get into your cells properly, so it begins to build up in your blood. And too much glucose in your blood causes a lot of different problems. To begin with, it may lead to diabetes symptoms.

What causes diabetes?

The causes of diabetes depend on the type of diabetes you have.

What all types of diabetes have in common is that they cause people to have too much glucose (sugar) in their blood. But we all need some glucose. It’s what gives us energy. We get glucose when our bodies break down the carbohydrates that we eat or drink. And that glucose is released into our blood.

We also need a hormone called insulin. It’s made by our pancreas, and it’s insulin that allows the glucose in our blood to enter our cells and fuel our bodies.

If you don’t have diabetes, your pancreas senses when glucose has entered your bloodstream and releases the right amount of insulin, so the glucose can get into your cells. But if you have diabetes, this system doesn’t work.

Symptoms of diabetes

The symptoms can depend on the type of diabetes you have. But the common symptoms of diabetes include:

  • Going to the toilet a lot, especially at night
  • Being really thirsty
  • Feeling more tired than usual
  • Losing weight without trying to
  • Genital itching or thrush
  • Cuts and wounds take longer to heal
  • Blurred vision

We’ve got more information about the signs and symptoms of diabetes, as well as advice about what to do if you have some.

4.3 million people are living with a diagnosis of diabetes in the UK

How is diabetes diagnosed?

Diabetes is diagnosed from a blood test. If there are no obvious symptoms it can go undiagnosed.

Early diagnosis helps prevent diabetes complications.  

Treatment for diabetes

Treatment is about trying to keep blood sugars within a target range. Being as active as possible, eating healthily and going for regular health checks will help you do this. Some people will also need to take insulin or other medication and check their blood sugars regularly. 

Lots of things can affect blood sugars, so it can be tricky to balance. But it’s possible to lead a full life. It's about being in tune with your body and learning what works for you.

Managing your diabetes

Getting used to life with diabetes can be difficult, but we’ve got lots of information to help you learn how to manage your condition effectively.

From advice about what to eat, to emotional support and guidance about driving, we’re here to help you live well with diabetes. Find out more about managing your diabetes today.

Diabetes complications

Over a long period of time, high glucose levels in your blood can cause problems in almost every part of your body from your brain to your feet and can seriously damage your heart, your eyes, your feet and your kidneys. These are known as the complications of diabetes.

But with the right treatment and care, people can live a healthy life. And there’s much less risk that someone will experience these complications.

Find out more about the different types of complications, and what you can do to reduce your risk of developing them.

Diabetes-related conditions

Having some conditions, such as polycystic ovary syndrome, can mean you are more at risk of developing diabetes. And there are other conditions linked to diabetes that you should be aware of.

We’ve got more information about these related conditions.


Some people may have a blood sugar level that is higher than usual, but not high enough to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. This is called prediabetes, and means you’re at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. 

Find out more about prediabetes, and the things you can do to reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes remission

Some people with type 2 diabetes are able to put their diabetes into remission. This means your blood sugar levels are healthy without taking any medication.

For many people, this can be life-changing. That’s why we’ve put together guidance and advice for those of you who want to know more about diabetes remission.

Diabetes research

We’ve funded world-class research into diabetes for over 80 years, so that our scientists can continue to find pioneering ways to improve the lives of millions living with the condition. 

We’ve got more information about our diabetes research, including more about our approach and the latest projects we are currently funding.

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