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Type 1 Diabetes: Living With Complications


Topic Overview

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This topic is about complications from diabetes, such as eye, kidney, heart, nerve, or blood vessel disease. If you need other diabetes information, see:

What is type 1 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong disease that develops when the pancreas stops making insulin. Your body needs insulin to let sugar (glucose) move from the blood into the body's cells, where it can be used for energy or stored for later use.

If sugar cannot move from the blood into the cells, your blood sugar gets too high and your cells cannot work right. High blood sugar can harm your blood vessels and nerves and lead to problems with your eyes, heart, feet, kidneys, and other areas of the body. These problems are called complications.

What are the complications from diabetes?

The complications from diabetes are:

What is it like to live with the complications?

Diabetes and its complications can change your life. Living with health problems caused by diabetes can be a constant struggle. It is a lot of work to monitor your health (such as foot care), keep up with your doctor appointments, and control your blood sugar. You may not always do everything exactly right, and it is normal to feel frustrated and sad at times. But don't give up. People with health problems from diabetes can still live full lives. If you are having trouble coping, talk to your doctor. Getting counseling or joining a diabetes support group may also help.

What are the symptoms of diabetes complications?

Different complications have different symptoms.

  • Heart disease can cause chest pain (also called angina) or shortness of breath when you exercise. You may have other symptoms, such as dizziness or lightheadedness, shoulder or belly pain, or a racing heartbeat. Some people don't have any symptoms until they have a heart attack or stroke.
  • Circulation problems in your legs and feet (peripheral arterial disease) can cause changes in skin color, less feeling in your legs and feet, and leg cramps during exercise.
  • Eye disease can cause vision problems, blindness, or (rarely) pain in your eyes.
  • Kidney disease may not cause any symptoms at first. As time goes on, you may have swelling in your feet and legs and, if severe, all through your body. It can also cause high blood pressure over time.
  • Nerve disease causes different symptoms depending on which nerves are affected.
    • If the nerves related to feeling and touch are affected, it can cause tingling, numbness, tightness, burning, or shooting or stabbing pain in your feet, hands, or other parts of your body, especially at night. You may not notice an injury, especially on your foot, until you have a severe infection. A bad foot infection can spread up your leg and into your bones. If this happens, the affected limb may need to be removed (amputated).
    • If the nerves that control internal organs are damaged, you may have sexual problems or problems with digestion or your bladder. You may also sweat a lot or too little, feel dizzy or weak, or faint when you stand up. It may be hard to tell when your blood sugar is low.

How are they treated?

Depending on the problem, treatment for a diabetes complication may include medicine, surgery, or other therapies. Early treatment for a complication can help slow the damage and may prevent other problems.

But there is a lot that you can do yourself. Here are seven steps you can take to help keep health problems from getting worse.

  1. Keep your blood sugar within a target range. Part of your daily routine includes checking your blood sugar levels regularly as advised by your doctor.
  2. Lose weight if you need to, get plenty of exercise, and try to eat about the same amount of carbohydrate at each meal. Making these lifestyle changes may make you feel better and help control your blood sugar.
  3. Talk to your doctor about whether you should take low-dose aspirin. Daily low-dose aspirin (81 milligrams) may help prevent heart problems if you are at risk for heart attack or stroke.
  4. Don't smoke. Smoking raises your risk for heart attack, stroke, and many other serious problems.
  5. Take medicine, if you need it, to control high blood pressure and high cholesterol. This may help prevent other problems from diabetes.
  6. Take care of your feet. Wash and dry them carefully every day, and look for any sores or injuries that you may not feel because of nerve damage.
  7. Have regular checkups every 3 to 6 months (or more often if you need to), and watch for signs of other problems. Also be sure to see your eye doctor and dentist regularly.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about diabetic complications:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Ongoing concerns:

Living with complications from diabetes:

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