Prevent Complications

Over time, diabetes can affect any part of your body. The good news is that you can prevent or delay many health complications by taking good care of yourself. That includes keeping your blood sugar levels as close to your target as possible, eating healthy, getting regular physical activity, keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol at the levels your doctor sets, taking medicines if needed, and getting regular checkups.

It sounds like a lot, but it’s worth it to improve your health and feel your best.

Heart Disease

Did you know?

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among people with diabetes. You’re twice as likely to have heart disease or a stroke as someone who doesn’t have diabetes, and it could happen at a younger age.

How can diabetes affect my heart?

Over time, high blood sugar from diabetes can damage blood vessels as well as the nerves that control your heart and blood vessels. You’re also more likely to have other conditions that raise your risk for heart disease:

  • High blood pressure increases the force of blood through your arteries and can damage artery walls.
  • Too much LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in your bloodstream can build up on the damaged artery walls and form plaque. Over time, plaque can cause atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and can block the arteries, stopping blood flow to the heart (heart attack) or brain (stroke).
  • High triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood) and low HDL (“good”) cholesterol or high LDL cholesterol is thought to contribute to hardening of the arteries.

None of these conditions have symptoms. Your doctor can do a simple blood test to check your levels.

How can I be “heart healthy” if I have diabetes?

These lifestyle changes can help lower your risk for heart disease:

  • Follow a healthy diet. Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains. Eat fewer processed foods (such as chips, sweets, fast food) and avoid trans pdf icon[PDF – 2 MB] fat. Drink more water, fewer sugary drinks, and less alcohol.
  • Aim for a healthy weight. If you’re overweight, even losing a modest amount of weight can lower your triglycerides and blood sugar. Modest weight loss means 5% to 7% of body weight, just 10 to 14 pounds for a 200-pound person.
  • Get physically active. Being active makes your body more sensitive to insulin (the hormone that allows cells in your body to use blood sugar for energy), which helps manage your diabetes. Physical activity also helps control blood sugar levels and lowers your risk of heart disease and nerve damage. Try to get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity, such as brisk walking.
  • Manage your ABCs:
    • A: Get a regular A1C test to measure your average blood sugar over 2 to 3 months; aim to stay in your target range as much as possible.
    • B: Try to keep your blood pressure below 140/90 mm Hg (or the target your doctor sets).
    • C: Control your cholesterol levels.
    • s: Stop smoking or don’t start.

Your doctor may also prescribe medicines that can help you manage your blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.

For more information:

Kidney Disease

How can diabetes affect my kidneys?

High blood sugar damages cells and blood vessels in your kidneys so they can’t filter out waste as well as they should. This condition is called chronic kidney disease, or CKD. About 1 in 3 adults with diabetes has CKD.

CKD usually gets worse over time and can lead to kidney failure. If your kidneys fail, you’ll need regular dialysis (a treatment that filters waste out of your blood) or a kidney transplant.

How can I keep my kidneys healthy?

  • Stay in your target blood sugar range as much as possible, and keep your blood pressure below 140/90 mm Hg (or the goal your doctor sets for you). Both can prevent or delay CKD and keep it from getting worse.
  • Make sure to take any prescribed medicines as instructed by your doctor.

CKD doesn’t have any signs or symptoms at first, so it’s important to get your kidneys checked regularly. If you do develop CKD, early treatment can help prevent other health problems. Talk to your doctor about ways you can manage CKD and take care of your kidney health.

For more information:

Nerve Damage

How can diabetes affect my nerves?

Over time, high blood sugar can cause neuropathy (nerve damage) throughout your body. One type of neuropathy affects the nerves in your arms and legs. Symptoms can range from mild numbness to pain that makes it hard to do normal activities. The other type of neuropathy can affect your heart, stomach, and other organs in your body.

As many as half of people with diabetes have nerve problems, but not all have symptoms. The longer you have diabetes, the more likely you’ll have nerve damage.

How can I prevent nerve damage?

  • Keep your blood sugar as close to your target levels as possible.
  • Keep your blood pressure below 140/90 mm Hg (or the target your doctor sets).
  • Get regular physical activity.
  • Lose weight if you’re overweight.
  • Limit or avoid alcohol.
  • Stop smoking or don’t start.

For more information:

Nerve Damage and Digestion

How can nerve damage affect my digestion?

Gastroparesis is a condition where the stomach doesn’t empty normally because of nerve damage. This can cause your blood sugar to rise when food finally leaves your stomach. Your blood sugar levels can be hard to predict and make your diabetes harder to manage. Symptoms of gastroparesis can include heartburn, nausea, vomiting, feeling full quickly, weight loss, loss of appetite, and abdominal bloating.

How can I manage gastroparesis?

  • Keep your blood sugar as close to your target levels as possible. High blood sugar may slow down your digestion even more.
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals, and avoid foods high in fat (which can slow digestion further) and fiber (which may be harder to digest).
  • Your doctor might also prescribe medicine that helps food digest more easily and helps control nausea.

For more information:

Nerve Damage, Sexual Problems, and Urinary Tract Infections

How can nerve damage cause sex and bladder problems?

Many people with nerve damage from diabetes have trouble having sex. Men can have trouble maintaining an erection and ejaculating; and women can have trouble with arousal and vaginal lubrication.

Additionally, both men and women with diabetes are more likely to get urinary tract infections and have bladder problems.

How can I prevent sex and bladder problems?

  • Keep your blood sugar as close to your target levels as possible.
  • Keep your blood pressure below 140/90 mm Hg (or the target your doctor sets).
  • Ask your doctor about other options if your blood pressure medicine is causing sexual side effects.
  • Get regular physical activity.
  • Lose weight if you’re overweight.
  • Limit or avoid alcohol.
  • Stop smoking or don’t start.

For more information:

Foot Health

How can diabetes affect my feet?

Nerve damage can lower your ability to feel pain, heat, or cold. If you don’t feel pain in your feet, you may not notice a cut, blister, or sore, or that water is too hot. Small problems can become serious if they aren’t treated early. Poor circulation (another diabetes complication) along with nerve damage puts you at risk for developing a foot ulcer (a sore or wound) that could get infected and not heal well.

If an infection doesn’t get better with treatment, your toe, foot, or part of your leg may need to be amputated (removed by surgery) to prevent the infection from spreading.

What are some ways I can take care of my feet?

  • Check your feet every day for cuts, redness, swelling, sores, corns, calluses, or blisters.
  • Wash your feet in warm—not hot—water, and dry them well.
  • Trim your toenails straight across and file the edges with an emery board.
  • Wear shoes that fit well. Break in new shoes slowly by wearing them 1 to 2 hours each day until they’re comfortable.
  • Never go barefoot. Always wear shoes or slippers, even inside, to protect your feet.
  • Put your feet up when you’re sitting and wiggle your toes for a few minutes.
  • Get your feet checked at every health care visit, and see your foot doctor every year (more often if you have nerve damage).

For more information:

Oral Health

How can diabetes affect my mouth, teeth, and gums?

High blood sugar increases the level of sugar in your saliva. Sugar feeds the bacteria in your mouth, and when bacteria is combined with food, it creates plaque, a sticky film that can cause tooth decay.

People with diabetes are more likely to have gum disease, which can lead to tooth loss. Gum disease can also make blood sugar levels rise and make diabetes harder to manage. Treating gum disease can lower blood sugar over time and reduce the chance of other diabetes problems, such as heart disease and kidney failure.

How can I keep my mouth, teeth, and gums healthy?

  • Keep your blood sugar as close to your target levels as possible.
  • Brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss once a day.
  • If you wear dentures, remove and clean them daily. Let your dentist know if your dentures are causing any soreness.
  • Get regular dental checkups, and let your dentist know you have diabetes.
  • Stop smoking or don’t start.

Call your dentist right away if your gums are swollen and bleed easily, or if you think you may have a tooth infection.

For more information:

Hearing Loss

How can diabetes affect my hearing?

Hearing loss is twice as common in people who have diabetes as it is in people who don’t. Over time, high blood sugar levels can damage small blood vessels and nerves in the inner ear. This may also affect your balance. Hearing loss often happens gradually, so you may not know you’re having trouble hearing.

Signs you might have hearing loss include:

  • Problems hearing in noisy places such as busy restaurants
  • Thinking other people are mumbling
  • Often asking people to repeat themselves
  • Trouble following conversations with more than two people
  • Needing to turn the TV or radio volume up to levels that are too loud for other people

What can I do to take care of my hearing?

  • Keep your blood sugar as close to your target levels as possible.
  • Get your hearing checked every year.
  • Avoid other causes of hearing loss, including smoking and loud noises.
  • Ask your doctor if any medicines you’re taking can damage your hearing and what options are available.
  • Ask your doctor if you need to see an audiologist (hearing loss specialist).

For more information:

Vision Loss

How can diabetes affect my eyes?

Diabetic retinopathy is a very common diabetes complication, and it’s the leading cause of blindness in American adults. Over time, high blood sugar levels and high blood pressure can damage small blood vessels in the retina (the light-sensitive layer at the back of the eyeball). New blood vessels can develop, but they don’t grow properly and leak, causing vision loss. Usually both eyes are affected.

People with diabetes are also more likely to develop cataracts (clouding of the lens) and glaucoma (a group of diseases that damage the optic nerve).

How can I keep my eyes healthy?

  • Keep your blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels as close to your targets as you can.
  • Get regular exercise.
  • Stop smoking or don’t start.
  • Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, especially dark, leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and collard greens. Eat fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and tuna.
  • Take medicines as prescribed by your doctor, even if you feel good.
  • Visit your eye doctor for a dilated eye exam at least once a year—your regular doctor won’t be able to detect eye problems. You may not even have any symptoms until you start to lose your vision, so regular eye exams are necessary. The earlier eye problems are found and treated, the better for your eyesight.

Don’t wait until your next eye appointment if you have any of these symptoms—see your eye doctor right away:

  • Black spots or holes in your vision
  • Flashes of light
  • Loss of side vision
  • Halos around lights

For more information:

Mental Health

How are diabetes and mental health related?

Unrecognized and untreated mental health issues can make diabetes harder to handle, and the opposite is also true—getting help for a mental health problem can help you manage diabetes. But many don’t get the help they need. Problems like depression are much more common in people with diabetes, but only 25% to 50% get diagnosed and treated.

Stress is a part of life, but if you’re feeling stressed you may not take as good care of yourself and your diabetes as usual. Another very common problem is diabetes distress—feeling discouraged, frustrated, or tired of dealing with diabetes every day. That may lead you to slip into unhealthy habits, such as eating unhealthy food or skipping physical activity.

Where can I get help if I feel sad, stressed, or overwhelmed?

  • If you think you might have depression, get in touch with your doctor right away. The sooner you get treatment, the better for you, your quality of life, and your diabetes.
  • Ask your doctor to refer you to a mental health counselor who specializes in chronic health conditions.
  • Join a diabetes support group pdf icon[PDF – 1 MB]external icon so you can share your thoughts and feelings with people who have the same concerns (and learn from them too).

For more information:

Page last reviewed: August 1, 2019