There are an estimated four million people in the UK living with diabetes, however, it’s a condition that is often misunderstood. An expert reveals what everyone should know about diabetes on World Diabetes Day.
Every two minutes, someone in the UK is diagnosed with diabetes. Despite this, two thirds of those living with the condition don’t fully understand their diabetes. This misunderstanding can lead to mismanagement, causing various complications and disability.
Diabetes is a condition that causes a person’s blood sugar to become too high. At present, there is currently no cure, however it can be managed by making lifestyle changes and taking insulin, your GP can support you in finding the best way to manage your condition to meet your needs.
There are two main types: Type 1 and Type 2. People with Type 1 are usually diagnosed as a child or teenager. It occurs when the cells in your body attack the pancreas, meaning it cannot produce any insulin, causing high blood glucose levels.
Alternatively, in cases of Type 2 diabetes, the body is unable to make enough insulin, or the insulin it does produce doesn’t work effectively. According to Diabetes UK, 90 per cent of people with the condition have Type 2 diabetes.
In the early stages, Type 2 can be managed with a healthy diet, regular exercise and losing weight if necessary. But, the longer someone lives with Type 2, the more likely it is they’ll need to start treating it with medication.
Symptoms of diabetes can include increased toilet usage, feeling more thirsty and tired than usual, losing weight without trying to and blurred vision; though around six in 10 people have no symptoms at time of diagnosis.
The condition is treated with insulin: either via injections or a pump, and is free on prescription – if you’re based in England you will require a medical exemption certificate to claim your free prescription.
If not managed properly, diabetes can lead to serious complications, and in worst case scenarios, the complications can be fatal.
“Diabetes can result in devastating complications, some of which can lead to disability, or even be life-threatening,” explains Libby Dowling, senior clinical advisor at Diabetes UK.
“This is because having high blood sugars can damage your blood vessels, and affect parts of your body such as your feet and your eyes, potentially leading to blindness or amputations. Damage to your blood vessels can also cause a heart attack and stroke.”
Hypos can occur when blood sugars are too low, and hypers when they’re too high, and happen when the levels of insulin, the food you eat and the exercise you do don’t complement each other.
Symptoms include sweating, shaking, going pale, feeling hungry; or unusual thirst, headaches and tiredness.
Other complications can include eye problems, such as retinopathy, which can lead to complete sight loss.
In fact, diabetes is the leading cause of preventable sight loss in the UK.
Having diabetes can also put you at heightened risk of foot problems – the most severe of which can lead to amputation. According to Diabetes UK, the condition leads to 169 amputations each week.
Usually, your diabetes team will tell you if your risk of foot problems is high, which will allow you to put preventative measures in place. You should check your feet daily and contact your GP immediately if you notice any changes, such as pain, aching, a tingling sensation, swelling, or sores that don’t heal.
“Attending your diabetes health checks, and knowing how to look after yourself between appointments, is very important,” Libby stresses.
“Your diabetes team will help you manage your diabetes in the best way for you, assess your risk of complications and advise you on how best to prevent or treat them. Together you can agree on a personalised care plan.”
Receiving a diabetes diagnosis can be a shock and bring a wave of different emotions as you come to terms with the impact it has on your life.
“First reactions might include disbelief, guilt, feeling overwhelmed and even anger,” Libby continues. “Often these feelings ease after a while and diabetes becomes a part of life, but sometimes these feelings don’t go away easily and this can have an impact on many different aspects of life.”
Adjusting your lifestyle to accommodate diabetes can be an emotional process: not only do you have to make changes to your diet, but it can also impact your work, personal life and overall lifestyle.
“It’s important to know you’re not alone,” Libby emphasises. “There are lots of people out there to support you – whether that’s your family, your friends, your diabetes team, online forums or support groups. The important thing is to talk about diabetes and how it’s making you feel.”
Mental health problems such as stress, can affect blood glucose control and exacerbate your diabetes. So, it’s important that if you’re struggling to cope with diagnosis, or other aspects of life, that you liaise with your diabetes team, who can signpost you to the right support.
“Be honest with your team about how you’re feeling and where you need help,” Libby urges. “Don’t ignore the emotional impact of developing a complication – if you find it’s affecting you emotionally, talk to your diabetes team who will help you find out what support would best work for you.”
Early diagnosis is the key to preventing further complications, therefore it is vital that more people are aware of the signs and symptoms of the condition.
With around one million people in the UK living with undiagnosed diabetes, it’s vital that more is done to raise awareness and prevent misconceptions around diabetes.