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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 diabetes complications. But you can take action to prevent or delay many of these side effects of diabetes.

What are the major complications of diabetes?

You might hear your healthcare team talk about two types of diabetes complications: serious ones that build up over time called chronic complications and ones that can happen at any time called acute complications.  

Chronic complications

These are long-term problems that can develop gradually, and can lead to serious damage if they go unchecked and untreated.

  • Eye problems (retinopathy)
    Some people with diabetes develop an eye disease called diabetic retinopathy which can affect their eyesight. If retinopathy is picked up – usually from an eye screening test - it can be treated and sight loss prevented.

  • Foot problems
    Diabetes foot problems are serious and can lead to amputation if untreated. Nerve damage can affect the feeling in your feet and raised blood sugar can damage the circulation, making it slower for sores and cuts to heal. That’s why it’s important to tell your GP if you notice any change in how your feet look or feel.  

  • Heart attack and stroke
    When you have diabetes, high blood sugar for a period of time can damage your blood vessels. This can sometimes lead to heart attacks and strokes. 

  • Kidney problems (nephropathy)
    Diabetes can cause damage to your kidneys over a long period of time making it harder to clear extra fluid and waste from your body. This is caused by high blood sugar levels and high blood pressure. It is known as diabetic nephropathy or kidney disease.

  • Nerve damage (neuropathy)
    Some people with diabetes may develop nerve damage caused by complications of high blood sugar levels. This can make it harder for the nerves to carry messages between the brain and every part of our body so it can affect how we see, hear, feel and move. 

  • Gum disease and other mouth problems
    Too much sugar in your blood can lead to more sugar in your saliva. This brings bacteria which produces acid which attacks your tooth enamel and damages your gums. The blood vessels in your gums can also become damaged, making gums more likely to get infected.

  • Related conditions, like cancer 
    If you have diabetes, you’re more at risk of developing certain cancers. And some cancer treatments can affect your diabetes and make it harder to control your blood sugar. 

  • Sexual problems in women
    Damage to blood vessels and nerves can restrict the amount of blood flowing to your sexual organs so you can lose some sensation. If you have high blood sugar, you are also more likely to get thrush or a urinary tract infection. 

  • Sexual problems in men
    The amount of blood flowing to your sexual organs can be restricted which may cause you to have difficulty getting aroused. It may lead to erectile dysfunction, sometimes called impotence. 

Acute complications 

These can happen at any time and may lead to chronic, or long-term, complications.

Explore the graphic to find out more.

What causes complications associated with diabetes?

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. HbA1c is is glycated haemoglobin. This is made when glucose, which we call sugar, sticks to your blood cells and builds up in your blood. It's measured by a blood test that shows your average blood sugar levels over the last three months. A high HbA1c means you have too much sugar in your blood.

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?

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 finding out from your diabetes healthcare team how to look after yourself between appointments. You can prevent or delay the complications of diabetes. But you need to take action and it’s all about managing your diabetes well. We've got lots of advice on what care to expect when you've got diabetes and how it can help you prevent or delay complications. 

Manage your diabetes 

Keeping your HbA1c within the target range set by your healthcare team is really important for reducing your risk of complications. If your blood sugar levels are rising, talk to your doctor. Your treatment may need to change to get your HbA1c back in target to avoid the complications of high blood sugar.

Stop smoking 

Smoking makes it harder for blood to flow around your body to places like your heart and your feet. If you smoke, then stopping is a key part of reducing your chances of complications. Again, your GP and diabetes team will be able to help you quit

Eat more healthily 

Making healthier food choices can help you to lose weight, bring down your HbA1c, manage your blood pressure and help you reduce the fats in your blood like cholesterol. Ask to see a dietitian if you'd like extra help to eat healthily. 

Keep active 

Doing more physical activity helps reduce your chance of getting complications. If you struggle to get about, there are still ways you can keep active. We’ve got lots of free resources to help you get moving.

Go to all of your appointments 

Everyone with diabetes is entitled to a series of test and checks each year to monitor their diabetes, look out for any problems and see if any further support is needed.  Making sure you get all of them will mean you know how you're doing and about your type 1 and type 2 diabetes health risks.

If you have chronic complications 

When you have one chronic complication, you’re much more at risk of developing other complications of diabetes. 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 diabetes 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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