The effects of untreated Diabetes
Diabetes is a permanent chronic condition that can have serious consequences if not correctly treated.
What happens when you have Diabetes?
If you have Type 1 Diabetes, your body’s immune system destroys the cells that release Insulin, eventually eliminating Insulin production within the body. Without Insulin, cells can’t absorb the glucose that’s needed to produce energy.
If you have Type 2 Diabetes, your body is unable to use Insulin in the right way. Over time, the production of Insulin decreases. If you have Gestational Diabetes, it means that you have experienced a spike in your blood glucose levels that are linked to your pregnancy.
How does Diabetes affect your body?
Diabetes, despite being directly related to blood glucose levels, is indirectly related to many other health conditions and challenges. The five most common body parts affected by the onset of Diabetes, especially if left untreated, include your feet, skin, eyes, nerves and kidneys.
How Diabetes affects your feet:
Have you ever wondered why Diabetics need those special socks you’ve seen in your local pharmacy? Nerve damage and poor blood circulation caused by Diabetes can result in foot ulcers. If not treated, non-healing ulcers could cause severe damage to tissue and bone which in extreme cases could result in the amputation of a toe, foot or part of a leg. Those special socks aren’t elasticated so they don’t restrict blood circulation.
How Diabetes affects your skin:
People with high blood glucose levels can experience skin problems – dry skin and more difficulty fending off harmful bacteria. Both of these symptoms increase the risk of infection. About a third of all Diabetics suffer from bacterial infections, fungal infections, specific Diabetes-related skin conditions, and itching. Reduced blood circulation is the culprit here.
How Diabetes affects your eyes:
Glaucoma, cataracts, retinopathy (Diabetic disorders of the retina) and even blindness are some of the problems associated with the eyes of Diabetics.
How Diabetes affects your nerves:
Prolonged exposure to too much sugar in the blood can cause injury to nerve fibres throughout the body with the extremities being the prime targets. This can result in anything from pain and numbness in the limbs to problems with blood vessels, the heart, digestive system and urinary tract.
How Diabetes affects your kidneys and blood pressure:
WebMD (2020) explains: “Having Diabetes increases your risk of developing high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems, because it adversely affects the arteries, predisposing them to atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries). Atherosclerosis can cause high blood pressure, which if not treated, can lead to blood vessel damage, stroke, heart failure, heart attack or kidney failure.”
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What are the secondary risks of Diabetes?
Following on from how Diabetes affects several parts of your body, this section is about specific conditions that commonly appear as complications due to Diabetes being left untreated or mismanaged after a diagnosis:
Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA)
When the body doesn’t produce enough Insulin to make use of glucose for energy, it starts to use fat. Ketones are produced as a result of this process and when they build up they become extremely acidic. DKA can result when high levels of ketones become toxic to the body. It is considered the most dangerous Diabetic health complication.
In South Africa, Diabetes is the second most common cause of kidney disease after hypertension. Diabetic kidney disease, also known as nephropathy, occurs when high levels of sugar in the blood causes the kidneys to work harder by filtering out too much blood. Over time the kidney filters start to leak, resulting in the loss of useful urine proteins. Symptoms can include weakness, concentration issues, insomnia, nausea, poor appetite and swelling of the feet, hands and face, due to fluid build-up.
Simply put, a stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted. A Diabetic stroke is caused by damage to the arteries from the high level of glucose in the blood, or because of blocked blood vessels from fatty deposits in the arteries. Diabetics are considered as two to three times more likely to suffer a stroke than non-Diabetics.
Hyperosmolar Hyperglycemic Nonketotic Syndrome (HHNS)
This is quite a mouthful for something that simply refers to a build-up of sugar in the blood which the body tries to dispose of through urination. It leads to many toilet breaks as well as extreme thirst. HHNS is a very serious condition and can lead to severe dehydration, seizures, coma and even death. HHNS is typically brought on after an illness or infection and only seen in uncontrolled Diabetes.
This complication tends to occur in long-term Diabetics. Nerve damage from Diabetes causes the slowing of digestion and other bodily functions. Vomiting, nausea, heartburn, loss of appetite, fullness and bloating are all symptoms of gastroparesis.
Diabetics often suffer from conditions that make the development of heart disease more likely. People living with Diabetes are considered to be twice as likely to suffer from heart disease. Combined key risk factors include obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, lack of exercise and smoking.
Mental health problems
The effect of Diabetes on mental health is probably the most overlooked complication yet. Studies show, however, that Diabetics have a greater risk of Clinical Depression than non-Diabetics. It has even been suggested that the relationship between Diabetes and Clinical Depression is bidirectional, i.e. each one can cause the other. Anxiety and eating disorders are also very common.
Regardless of the symptoms and complications surrounding Diabetes, medical professionals all seem to agree on the crucial ways to manage it: a good diet and exercise.
Are the consequences of untreated Diabetes serious?
Living with blood glucose levels above 8mmol/l for a prolonged period of time can cause serious damage to your body. Damage could occur in large and small blood vessels and nerve endings. If left unchecked, these can lead to blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, strokes and amputations.
Early Diabetes detection and good care, combined with advances in medical treatment, make it possible for you to stay healthy and live a long life.
Diabetes.org. 2020. American Diabetes Association. [online] Available at: http://diabetes.org/ [Accessed 17 August 2020].
Mayoclinic.org. 2020. Mayo Clinic. [online] Available at: http://mayoclinic.org/ [Accessed 17 August 2020].
Medicalnewstoday.com. 2020. Medical And Health Information. [online] Available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/ [Accessed 17 August 2020].
Medscape.com. 2020. [online] Available at: http://medscape.com/ [Accessed 17 August 2020].
Stroke Association. 2020. [online] Available at: http://stroke.org.uk/ [Accessed 17 August 2020].
The National Kidney Foundation. 2020. [online] Available at: https://www.kidney.org/ [Accessed 17 August 2020].
WebMD. 2020. [online] Available at: https://www.webmd.com/ [Accessed 17 August 2020].
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