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Basic Skills for Living with Diabetes

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Diabetes health tip

Diabetes: Sorting fact from fiction
Diabetes is a serious illness. To help contain this leading cause of disability and death, it’s important to separate fact from fiction.

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Preventing diabetes complications

Diabetes can be the cause of a number of long-term health problems. You can greatly reduce your risk of complications by following the guidelines below.

Complications from diabetes can cause:

  • damage to the small blood vessels that carry blood to your eyes, kidneys and other parts of the body
  • damage to large blood vessels that carry blood to your brain, legs and heart
  • nerve damage (also called neuropathy)
  • decreased ability to fight infections.

As a result, because you have diabetes you are at greater risk for:

  • blindness
  • kidney damage
  • heart attack or stroke
  • dental problems
  • sexual problems
  • frequent infections and poor healing.

Eye problems

Your eyes can be damaged if your blood glucose and blood pressure levels are high. This damage is called retinopathy. It usually does not affect how well you see until it is severe.

Regular eye exams are very important because early changes can be detected and treated. Have your eyes checked every year by an ophthalmologist (doctor who specializes in eye diseases).

Watch for these signs of eye problems:

  • flashes of light
  • floating black spots
  • double or blurred vision
  • pain or similar signs.

To prevent problems:

Call your ophthalmologist or health care provider right away if you have any of the above signs.

Kidney problems

Damage to the kidneys is called nephropathy. Small blood vessels in the kidneys can become damaged by diabetes and high blood pressure and begin to leak. This damage can get worse until the kidneys fail.

There are no signs of kidney damage in the early stages that you would notice. Your doctor should check yearly for protein in your urine, an early indicator of nephropathy.

To prevent kidney damage:

  • Keep blood pressure and blood glucose in target range.
  • Do not smoke.
  • Do not take medicines that could harm your kidneys.

Call your health care provider right away if you have any signs of kidney or bladder infection including:

  • low back pain
  • fever
  • frequent urination
  • burning sensation while urinating
  • blood in the urine.

Heart attack, stroke and peripheral artery disease

People with diabetes are at greater risk for large blood vessel diseases. These include heart attacks, strokes and decreased blood flow to the legs (called peripheral artery disease). They are caused by a decrease in blood flow to the heart, brain or legs.

Watch for the following warning signs:

  • slow healing of sores on legs and feet
  • cold feet
  • loss of hair on feet
  • red feet when they dangle
  • leg pain that comes with activity and goes away with rest
  • chest pain (called angina).

To prevent large blood vessel disease:

  • Keep blood glucose and blood pressure in target range.
  • Control blood pressure by taking prescribed medication.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Do not smoke.
  • Eat low-fat foods.
  • Take any prescribed cholesterol-lowering medications.
  • Learn how to reduce stress.
  • Take aspirin if directed by your health care provider.

Nerve problems

Small blood vessel disease and a build-up of sorbitol (from high blood glucose) in the nerves can damage nerves in your body. This is called neuropathy. There are two types:

  • Peripheral neuropathy is damage to nerves in the arms and legs. Signs of peripheral neuropathy are:
    • numbness
    • tingling and/or burning feeling
    • pain in arms or legs.
  • Signs of motor neuropathy are:
    • loss of balance
    • loss of muscle mass
    • foot deformities.
  • Autonomic neuropathy is damage to nerves that control heartbeat, blood pressure, digestion, urination and sexual function. Signs of autonomic neuropathy are:
    • excessive sweating or dry skin
    • heart attack with no pain
    • sexual problems
    • alternating constipation and diarrhea
    • bladder problems
    • a sudden drop in blood pressure
    • food digestion problems
    • lack of symptoms with low blood glucose.

To prevent nerve damage:

  • Keep your blood glucose and blood pressure in your target range.
  • Do not smoke.


Source: Allina Patient Education, Basic Skills for Living with Diabetes, fifth edition, ISBN 1-931876-32-0

First published: 12/01/2006
Last updated: 10/25/2011

Reviewed by: Allina Patient Education experts