What you need to know about diabetes

What you need to know about diabetes

Photo: Tomasz Kubis

Diabetes is a disease in which a person’s body cannot properly regulate their blood glucose (a type of sugar) levels, and consequently diabetics can have higher blood sugar levels than what is considered normal for a healthy person.

There are two types of diabetes (the full name of the illness is diabetes mellitus).

If a person has Type 1 diabetes their body produces no insulin, so they have to take an insulin injection daily. Estimates are that 10% of all diabetes cases are Type 1. Most people who have Type 1 diabetes got it before their 40th birthday, some even during childhood.

Type 2 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes. It occurs when the body cannot use insulin properly (also known as insulin resistance) or when the pancreas – the organ that produces insulin – does not generate enough of it. This hinders glucose from entering the body’s cells and it remains in the blood. When cells do not get the glucose they need, they don’t function optimally.

There is also gestational diabetes which occurs during pregnancy for some women. A pregnant woman who is diagnosed with gestational diabetes can usually control it with the proper diet and exercise, but up to 1 in 5 women may need to take glucose-controlling medication.


Here are the symptoms to watch out for:

  • Frequent urination and constant thirst: Excess glucose in the blood causes your body to pull water from cells into the blood. This excess fluid is processed by the kidneys and causes more urine to be produced. Because of the loss of fluid from their bodies, diabetics constantly feel thirsty.
  • Strong feelings of hunger: Glucose that is needed to fuel your body is not getting into your cells and your body may compensate by trying to obtain more energy by making you hungry.
  • Weight gain: With increased hunger, you could end up eating more than your optimal daily calorie allowance.
  • Fatigue and irritability: Without glucose entering your cells, your body does not have the energy it needs to function and hence you will be tired and could turn irritable.
  • Blurred vision: This should be treated as soon as possible, since neglect can cause permanent damage to your eyesight.
  • Slow healing of wounds and bruises: Having high levels of blood glucose slows down the healing process.
  • Gum problems: Diabetics are often more prone to gum infections and other dental problems.
  • Sexual dysfunction in men: Constant erectile dysfunction in older men could be attributed to high blood sugar levels that are not being managed properly.
  • Tingling or feeling numb in the feet and hands: Excess glucose in the blood can damage your nerves, especially in your body’s extremities such as your fingers and toes.


Both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are treatable. However, there is no cure for Type 1 diabetes and a person who has it will need to take insulin for the rest of their life. People with Type 1 diabetes also need to watch out for hypoglycemia, a condition in which the amount of blood sugar drops very low. They need to monitor their blood glucose level carefully.

Typically, in the initial stages, a type 2 diabetic may be able to control their symptoms through diet and exercise. They may also need to take medication to manage their blood sugar levels. If the disease progresses, they may need to be take replacement insulin.


Diabetes is not contagious. There is no risk of developing diabetes by being near someone who has diabetes. While how exactly people develop diabetes is not known, certain risk factors have been identified.

Obesity is a major risk factor for diabetes, and there appear to be strong links to visceral abdominal fat, meaning fat that is concentrated around the internal organs in the abdomen.

Age, family history of diabetes are also risk factors. South Asians appear to be disproportionately predisposed to developing diabetes. While a person cannot do much about their age and genes, regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight may help prevent diabetes. That is why it is called a “lifestyle disease.”

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