Diabetes Symptoms, Diagnosis, & Testing

Thanks to the way diabetes is dramatized on television and in movies, many associate it with its more dramatic symptoms. Many think of the weakness and confusion that comes with a hypoglycemic episode, or the disabilities, like vision and circulation problems, associated with uncontrolled blood sugar. Some may even associate obesity with Type II diabetes. Not everyone with diabetes knows they have it, however. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than a quarter of people with diabetes are undiagnosed.

If you suspect you have diabetes, or are worried that someone in your life may have the illness, you should certainly watch out for symptoms, and if you see persistent signs of diabetes, you should seek a definitive diagnosis. The greatest threat diabetes poses is the damage that high blood sugar does to a person’s health over time, and the best treatment seeks to keep blood sugar at a healthy level. Left undiagnosed, high blood sugar will gradually degrade a person’s health. But once it’s diagnosed, a diabetic can begin to safeguard their lives against the disease.

Symptoms of Diabetes

How do people know if they have diabetes? Many of them don’t know, and they’re walking around with an undetected and untreated health problem. Even if you don’t have any diabetes symptoms, it’s important for you to have your blood sugar tested with your yearly checkup, just to be sure your blood sugar numbers are still in a good range. If you do see the following symptoms—in yourself, or in one of your loved ones—you should see a doctor as soon as possible. All of these symptoms can have causes besides diabetes, but no matter what, it’s important to find out what the cause is so it can be treated appropriately. Because everyone is different, it’s important to pay attention to your body and focus on its changes.

Unexpected Weight Loss

One of the things a diabetic person may notice is unexpected weight loss. If you are trying to lose weight and have been cutting your calories and getting more exercise you don’t have anything to worry about—weight loss under those conditions is hardly unexpected! But someone who hasn’t changed their habits and suddenly starts losing weight very likely has a health problem. A lot of people assume they have cancer when they lose a lot of weight without trying, but diabetes may be to blame, and it’s actually a more common diagnosis.

If you’re overweight or obese, you should still be suspicious of sudden, unexpected weight loss. When your weight is too high, especially for a long period of time, you can end up developing Type II diabetes along with other health problems. When this happens, your body stops processing your food intake efficiently, so you start losing weight. Unfortunately, you also aren’t getting the nutrition you need, which can be very hard on your body and its organs. Regardless of whether you need to lose weight or not, any unexplained weight loss should be checked out by your doctor, especially if it’s rapid.

Frequent Urination

How much water do you drink? If it’s a gallon a day, you should be urinating frequently. If you’re not drinking much water, though, you shouldn’t expect a lot of urination. One of the most classic and common symptoms of diabetes is waking up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, or needing to go soon after you have just gone. Just as with weight loss, this symptom may have another explanation: age can also make you wake up during the night to use the bathroom, for example.

Regardless, if you find that you’re going to the bathroom a lot, testing your blood sugar could be a good idea, because there are only a handful of explanations for how urination could suddenly become so frequent. If nothing else, getting checked out by your doctor will give you the peace of mind you need. If diabetes is found, it can be treated, and the sooner you keep it properly controlled the more likely it is that your disease won’t damage your organs and cause other problems.

Unexplained or Unrelenting Thirst or Hunger

People who develop diabetes are generally thirsty a lot of the time, and they may have trouble making that thirst go away. It’s certainly normal to be thirsty sometimes, especially if you haven’t had anything to drink for a little while and are getting dehydrated. Sometimes you just really want something to drink. But if you start noticing that you’re always thirsty and can’t seem to get enough water or your beverage of choice, you may want to be checked to make sure your blood sugar isn’t too high. This is an important and common symptom to watch out for, and one you can spot more easily than some of the others.

The same is true with excessive hunger. Many people who have diabetes lose weight, but in the beginning stages of it they may actually gain weight because they’re hungry all the time. You might also find that you’re really hungry, and that you keep eating but that you don’t gain any weight. While it would be great to have a metabolism that fast, it’s not normal to take in excessive levels of calories and not see that weight gain reflected on the scale. If you’re eating a lot and not gaining, or you can’t seem to stop feeling hungry, talk to your doctor about having your blood sugar tested.

Headache

Headaches are common occurrences, so determining whether they are related to diabetes isn’t always easy. But not everyone is prone to headaches, and people who suddenly start getting them when they didn’t have them before usually want to know why that’s happening. If you aren’t typically one to get a lot of headaches, but you start experiencing them frequently, you should see a doctor. It could be diabetes, or it could be something else, but either way it’s best to find out.

The headaches you will get if you’re diabetic are similar to other types of headaches, so there isn’t any real way to be sure what’s causing them without having your blood sugar tested. The headaches may also come and go, appear on one side or the other, or be mild or stronger. Since some people deal with headaches on a regular basis anyway, they may miss this common diabetes sign, but again, paying attention to any changes in your body is a great way to help reduce the chances that you’ll end up with uncontrolled diabetes and not catch and treat it within a reasonable period of time.

Excessive and/or Frequent Fatigue

Everyone feels tired sometimes, or even completely exhausted. You may lead a busy life with work, children, and other obligations. Or you may have a slower pace of life but also have medical conditions that make you feel more tired than the average person would. Either way, if you’re suddenly feeling tired or exhausted frequently, or you notice that it’s a much stronger feeling when you do get tired, diabetes could be the culprit. Since your body isn’t processing blood sugar correctly, and/or isn’t making the level of insulin it should be making, you can get tired much more easily, and that tiredness may linger.

Focus on getting enough rest and seeing if that gives you more energy. Sometimes people are simply overworked without realizing it. But if that rest and relaxation doesn’t do anything to alleviate the issues you’re experiencing with tiredness or fatigue, you’ll want to see your doctor. A simple blood test can tell you if you’re diabetic.

Itchiness

Dry skin, allergies, hormonal changes, cancer, and all kinds of minor ailments can cause itching. But you may not know that itching is also a symptom of diabetes. You may itch all over, or only in one or more selected spots, but the itching is still a symptom that needs to be considered. It’s one of the less common symptoms of diabetes, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore it. If you itch for a week and it stops it was probably related to something else, but itching that doesn’t go away should be investigated.

Make sure you consider other causes, too. Use lotion if your skin is dry, and try drinking more water, since staying hydrated can help alleviate itching. Check your skin for rashes, lump, redness, and any indication of where the itching is coming from or what is causing it. Additionally, you’ll want to focus on the itching in light of any other symptoms you may be having. If you are itching a lot and also have other diabetes symptoms, getting your blood sugar checked could be the right decision in order to catch diabetes early. If your blood sugar is good, your doctor can then run other tests to find the source of the itching.

Blurry Vision and Other Vision Changes

Your vision can tell you a lot about your health. If you suddenly find that you’re having to change your glasses prescription a lot, or that your vision is blurry for no apparent reason, an eye exam is in order. If no problems are found with your eyes, then it’s time to get your blood sugar checked. High blood sugar can cause blurry vision and other visual disturbances, so you want to make sure you’re getting your eyes checked just like you would have a regular medical checkup. Tell your doctor about any vision problems you’re having, too, so they can make a decision on whether you should be tested for diabetes.

Diagnosing Diabetes Through Blood Sugar Testing

While some people’s diabetes symptoms send them to their doctor, most people don’t find out they are diabetic until they go to their doctor for another reason. If your doctor tests your blood sugar, they can then tell you if you have high, low, or normal blood sugar. Testing your blood glucose levels (blood sugar) is easy, and it’s routinely done with other tests when your blood is drawn. The doctor can also prick your finger and do a blood sugar test right in the office for fast results.

What is Blood Sugar, Anyway?

Your blood sugar, or blood glucose, levels, are affected by two things: how much insulin your pancreas is making and how your body is processing that insulin, and what you’re eating that’s introducing extra sugar for your body to deal with. When most people eat something sugary, their blood sugar goes up. But it also comes back down quickly because the body is able to regulate itself. For people who have diabetes, their blood sugar goes up and then stays up. It doesn’t come down naturally like it should, which does damage to the body over time.

If you have Type I diabetes, your blood sugar control may be poor because of a lack of insulin production, or because your body doesn’t process the insulin and use it the right way. This can be an issue from birth, or it can develop in early childhood. It is a lifelong condition and generally isn’t something you can reverse. For those with Type II diabetes, insulin production and processing can still be issues, but these generally develop over time instead of being issues from birth or early childhood. In some cases, it is possible to reverse or “cure” Type II diabetes without the need for medication.

High Blood Sugar

Your blood sugar is considered high if your fasting blood sugar level—that is, the level measured after you’ve avoided eating for a set period of time—is over 90 to 100. How high your blood sugar is when tested will indicate whether you are healthy, have diabetes, or are prediabetic but haven’t developed diabetes yet. If you have prediabetes, you may be able to stop yourself from ever becoming diabetic without the need for medication. That can mean changing your diet, getting more exercise, and losing weight. Even small changes can make a big difference to someone who is prediabetic, and can stop a problem in its tracks before it has a chance to really take hold and cause significant future health issues.

Having Low Blood Sugar

The opposite problem is when your blood sugar levels drop too low. This is called hypoglycemia, and it can have serious negative health effects. You can faint, feel dizzy, and feel exhausted if you don’t get enough to eat, and you may have to eat smaller meals more often so you can feel healthy and stay active. For people with diabetes, low blood sugar can still be a problem. If you’re diabetic and you take medications such as insulin, you want to monitor your blood sugar closely to make sure your medications aren’t dropping your sugar too low. If they are, your doctor will need to help you make adjustments to stabilize your sugar levels.

Diabetes is a serious illness that can damage your body in many ways. Fortunately both Type I and Type II diabetes can be kept under control, allowing those with the illness to live a full life. Getting diabetes under control, however, first requires a diagnosis. Diabetes testing is easy and painless; if you or someone you love is experiencing the symptoms outlined above, make sure they see a physician. Even in the worst case scenario, a diabetes diagnosis is the first step to health.

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