The Silent Killer: Knowing the Signs of Diabetes

Diabetes affects 30.3 million people in the U.S., and yet around 7.2 million people haven’t received an official diagnosis. Diabetes is often known as the “silent killer.” Symptoms may go unnoticed or untreated for years. By the time some patients receive a diagnosis, much of the damage has already been done.

Diabetes can lead to or worsen a range of serious chronic conditions, including heart disease, stroke, blindness, and kidney failure. Diabetes can also be deadly. It was the seventh leading cause of death in the United States in 2015. In 2012, diabetes cost the U.S. healthcare system $245 billion. Average medical expenditures among people with diagnosed diabetes were about 2.3 times higher than expenditures for people without diabetes.

As a healthcare provider, you can help your patients recognize the early signs of diabetes so they can adjust their lifestyle before their condition gets any worse. Use these tips to take a more proactive approach in the fight against diabetes.

Understanding the Differences Between Type 1 and 2 Diabetes

Before we dive into the warning signs of diabetes, let’s talk about the differences between type 1 and 2 diabetes, so you can better understand how this condition affects the body.

In patients with type 1 diabetes, the body’s immune system attacks insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Insulin reduces the amount of sugar in the bloodstream. It allows sugar to pass into the person’s cells, so the body can use it for energy. Without insulin, sugar starts to build in the bloodstream, which leads to type 1 diabetes.  The exact cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown, but it’s likely related to a variety of genetic and environmental factors.

With type 2 diabetes, cells in the body become resistant to insulin and the pancreas can’t make enough insulin to overcome this resistance. Without enough insulin, the body can no longer use sugar for energy, leaving it to build in the bloodstream. Type 2 diabetes is generally caused by poor diet and a lack of physical activity, but genetic and environmental factors can play a role as well.

Early Signs of Diabetes

In many patients, diabetes may go undiagnosed for years. As endocrinologist Kevin Pantalone, DO of the Cleveland Clinic writes, “When we diagnose someone, we assume they have probably already had diabetes for about five years.” During the early stages of diabetes, the symptoms tend to be subtle. Patients and care providers should keep an eye out for the following warning signs, so they can start reversing the effects of the disease as soon as possible:

  • Frequent urination – constantly having the urge to go, especially at night
  • An increase in urinary or yeast infections – excess sugar in the urine can lead to more yeast or urinary infections, especially in women.
  • Unexpected weight loss – the body may start burning fat stores when there’s too much sugar in the body.
  • Worsening vision – high blood sugar can distort a person’s vision. Watch out for sudden changes in a person’s prescription glasses or contact lenses.
  • Constant fatigue – high blood sugar levels can disrupt sleep and increase dehydration.
  • Skin discoloration – diabetes can lead to darkened skin in a person’s neck folds and around the knuckles.
  • Wounds that are slow to heal – everyday cuts and bruises may not heal as quickly as they would normally.

Many of these symptoms tend to be subtle or nonexistent during the early stages of diabetes. Even slight changes to a person’s behavior or health may be a cause for concern. Additional risk factors for diabetes include:

  • Having a family history of diabetes
  • Recent exposure to a viral illness
  • Being overweight
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Race – for reasons that remain unclear, black people, Hispanics, American Indians and Asian-Americans are at higher risk of getting diabetes than white patients
  • High blood pressure

Keep these warning signs and risk factors in mind when examining your patients.

Getting Help Before It’s Too Late

If you notice any of the warning signs mentioned above, talk to your patients about the risks of diabetes and why it’s important to get tested. Encourage your at-risk patients to sign up for a blood glucose screening or visit an endocrinologist. Anyone that’s overweight and over the age of 45 should receive a blood glucose screening every few years just to be safe.

Once the patient has been diagnosed with diabetes, they’ll need to adjust their lifestyle to prevent further complications. The best ways to reduce the effects of diabetes is to eat a balanced diet, lose excess weight, and get plenty of exercise. Patients should eat more fiber than carbohydrates, while managing their sugar intake. It’s best to stay away from sugary fruit juices, sports drinks, alcohol, and soda. Have your patients switch to whole fruit, green, leafy vegetables, and lean meats.

Detecting diabetes can be a challenge for some patients and care providers. One symptom or early warning sign may not stand out on its own, but looking at the whole picture can help patients and providers detect diabetes sooner rather than later. The longer a person has diabetes, the more damage it will do to the body. Talk to your patients about their risks and join the fight against diabetes today.

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