Prevent Complications

Diabetes can affect any part of your body. The good news is that you can prevent most of these problems by keeping your blood glucose (blood sugar) under control, eating healthy, being physically active, working with your health care provider to keep your blood pressure and cholesterol under control, and getting necessary screening tests.

Heart Disease (Cardiovascular Health)

How can diabetes affect my heart?

Heart disease is the leading cause of early death among people with diabetes. Adults with diabetes are two to three times more likely than people without diabetes to die of heart disease or have a stroke. Also, about 74% of people with diabetes have high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease.

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

To protect your heart and blood vessels:

  • Eat healthy—choose a healthy diet, low in salt. Work with a dietitian to plan healthy meals.
  • Get physically active—if you’re overweight, talk to your doctor about how to safely lose weight. Ask about a physical activity or exercise program that would be best for you.
  • Don’t smoke—quit smoking, if you currently do.
  • Maintain healthy blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels—get an A1C test at least twice a year to determine what your average blood glucose level was for the past 3 months. Get your blood pressure checked at every doctor’s visit, and get your cholesterol checked at least once a year. Take medications if prescribed by your doctor.

How are cholesterol, triglyceride, weight, and blood pressure problems related to diabetes?

People with type 2 diabetes have high cholesterol and triglyceride rates, obesity, and high blood pressure, all of which are major contributors to higher rates of heart disease. Many people with diabetes have several of these conditions at the same time. This combination is often called metabolic syndrome. The metabolic syndrome is often defined as the presence of any three of the following conditions:

  • Excess weight around the waist
  • High levels of triglycerides
  • Low levels of HDL, or “good,” cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • High fasting blood glucose levels.

If you have one or more of these conditions, you are at an increased risk for having one or more of the others. The more conditions that you have, the greater the risk to your health.

See the following for more information:

Kidney Disease

How can diabetes affect the kidneys?

In diabetic kidney disease (also called diabetic nephropathy), cells and blood vessels in the kidneys are damaged, affecting the organs’ ability to filter out waste. Waste builds up in your blood instead of being excreted. In some cases this can lead to kidney failure. When your kidneys fail, you will have to have your blood filtered through a machine (dialysis) several times a week, or you will needs a kidney transplant.

How can I keep my kidneys healthy if I have diabetes?

You can do a lot to prevent kidney problems. Controlling your blood glucose and keeping your blood pressure under control can prevent or delay the onset of kidney disease.

Diabetic kidney disease happens slowly and silently, so you might not feel that anything is wrong until severe problems develop. Therefore, it is important to get your blood and urine checked for kidney problems each year.

Your doctor will see how well your kidneys are working by testing every year for microalbumin (a protein) in the urine. Microalbumin in the urine is an early sign of diabetic kidney disease. Your doctor can also do a yearly blood test to measure your kidney function.

If you develop a bladder or kidney infection, visit your doctor. Symptoms include cloudy or bloody urine, pain or burning when you urinate, an urgent need to urinate often, back pain, chills, or fever.

See the following for more information:

Nerve Damage

How can diabetes affect nerve endings?

Having high blood glucose for many years can damage blood vessels that bring oxygen to some nerve endings. Damaged nerves may stop, slow, or send messages at wrong times. Numbness, pain, and weakness in the hands, arms, feet, and legs may develop. Problems may also occur in various organs, including the digestive tract, heart, and sex organs. Diabetic neuropathy is the medical term for damage to the nervous system from diabetes. The most common type is peripheral neuropathy, which affects the arms and legs.

An estimated 50% of people with diabetes have some nerve problems, but not all have symptoms. Nerve problems can develop at any time, but the longer a person has diabetes, the greater the risk. The highest rates of nerve problems are among people who have had the disease for at least 25 years.

Diabetic nerve problems also are more common in people who have problems controlling their blood glucose levels, blood pressure, weight, and in people over the age of 40.

How can I prevent nerve damage if I have diabetes?

You can help keep your nervous system healthy by keeping your blood glucose as close to normal as possible, getting regular physical activity, not smoking, taking good care of your feet each day, having your health care provider examine your feet at least 4 times a year, and getting your feet tested for nerve damage at least once a year.

See the following for more information: Diabetic Neuropathyexternal icon

Digestive Problems

How can diabetes affect the digestion?

Gastroparesis (delayed gastric emptying) is a disorder where the stomach takes too long to empty itself due to nerve damage. It frequently occurs in people with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

Symptoms of gastroparesis include heartburn, nausea, vomiting of undigested food, an early feeling of fullness when eating, weight loss, abdominal bloating, erratic blood glucose levels, lack of appetite, gastroesophageal reflux, and spasms of the stomach wall.

See the following for more information:

Foot Problems

Why is it especially important to take care of my feet if I have diabetes?

Sometimes nerve damage can deform or misshape your feet, causing pressure points that can turn into blisters, sores, or ulcers. Poor circulation can make these injuries slow to heal. Sometimes this can lead to amputation of a toe, foot, or leg.
What should I do on a regular basis to take care of my feet?

  • Look for cuts, cracks, sores, red spots, swelling, infected toenails, splinters, blisters, and calluses on the feet each day. Call your doctor if such wounds do not heal after one day.
  • If you have corns and calluses, ask your doctor or podiatrist about the best way to care for them.
  • Wash your feet in warm—not hot—water, and dry them well.
  • Cut your toenails once a week or when needed. Cut toenails when they are soft from washing. Cut them to the shape of the toe and not too short. File the edges with an emery board.
  • Rub lotion on the tops and bottoms of feet—but not between the toes—to prevent cracking and drying.
  • Wear stockings or socks to avoid blisters and sores.
  • Wear clean, lightly padded socks that fit well. Seamless socks are best.
  • Wear shoes that fit well. Break in new shoes slowly, by wearing them 1 to 2 hours each day for a week to 2 weeks.
  • Always wear shoes or slippers, because when you are barefoot it is easy to step on something and hurt your feet.
  • Protect your feet from extreme heat and cold.
  • When sitting, keep the blood flowing to your lower limbs by propping your feet up and moving your toes and ankles for a few minutes at a time.
  • Avoid smoking, which reduces blood flow to the feet.
  • Keep your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol under control by eating healthy foods, staying active, and taking your diabetes medicines.

See the following for more information:

Sexual Response and Urinary Tract Infections

How can diabetes affect my sexual response?

Many people with diabetic nerve damage have trouble having sex. For example, men can have trouble maintaining an erection and ejaculating. Women can have trouble with sexual response and vaginal lubrication. Both men and women with diabetes can get urinary tract infections and bladder problems more often than average.

See the following for more information:

Oral Health

How can diabetes affect my mouth, teeth and gums?

People with diabetes are more likely to have problems with their teeth and gums due to high blood glucose. And like all infections, dental infections can make your blood glucose go up. Sore, swollen, and red gums that bleed when you brush your teeth are a sign of a dental problem called gingivitis. Another problem, called periodontitis, happens when your gums shrink or pull away from your teeth.

People with diabetes can have tooth and gum problems more often if their blood glucose stays high. Smoking also makes it more likely for you to have gum disease, especially if you have diabetes and are age 45 or older.

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

You can help maintain your oral health by:

  • Keeping your blood glucose as close to normal as possible.
  • Brushing your teeth at least twice a day, and flossing once a day.
  • Keeping any dentures clean.
  • Getting a dental cleaning and exam twice a year, and telling your dentist that you have diabetes.

Call your dentist with any problems, such as gums that are red, sore, bleeding, or pulling away from the teeth; any possible tooth infection; or soreness from dentures.

See the following for more information:


How can diabetes affect the eyes?

In diabetic eye disease, high blood glucose and high blood pressure cause small blood vessels to swell and leak liquid into the retina of the eye, blurring the vision and sometimes leading to blindness. People with diabetes are also more likely to develop cataracts (a clouding of the eye’s lens) and glaucoma (optic nerve damage). Laser surgery can in some cases help these conditions.

How can I keep my eyes healthy if I have diabetes?

There’s a lot you can do to prevent eye problems. Keeping your blood glucose level closer to normal can prevent or delay the onset of diabetic eye disease. Also, keeping your blood pressure under control is important. Finding and treating eye problems early can help save your sight.

Have an eye doctor give you a dilated eye exam at least once a year. The doctor will use eye drops to enlarge (dilate) your pupils to examine the backs of your eyes. Your eyes will be checked for signs of cataracts or glaucoma, problems that people with diabetes are more likely to get.

Because diabetic eye disease may develop without symptoms, regular eye exams are important for finding problems early. Some people may notice signs of vision changes. If you’re having trouble reading, if your vision is blurred, or if you’re seeing rings around lights, dark spots, or flashing lights, you may have eye problems. Be sure to tell your health care team or eye doctor about any eye problems you may have.

See the following for more information:

Mental Health

How are diabetes and mental health related?

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 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.

See the following for more information:

Page last reviewed: March 20, 2019