By Amy Gorin Reviewed by Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE
Strange Symptoms That May Signal Diabetes
When you have type 2 diabetes, it’s important to be diagnosed as early as possible, since untreated symptoms can lead to dangerous — and sometimes irreversible — damage to the eyes, nerves, and kidneys. Common symptoms include fatigue, lethargy, confusion, nausea, and increased urination, says David Bradley, MD, assistant professor of endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. But those aren’t the only signs that may signal type 2 diabetes — there are several more unusual symptoms that many people don’t commonly associate with the disease. It’s important to be aware of them, especially if you have a family history of diabetes: If one or both parents has type 2, then you have an increased chance of developing the disease yourself.
So that you know what to be on the lookout for, we consulted the experts, who told us about seven unusual symptoms of diabetes. If you experience one or more of them, consult your doctor as soon as possible.
If you’re having trouble reading street signs, your glasses may not be the problem. Although later-stage diabetes can cause permanent eye damage, blurry vision that arises in the early stages of the disease may be reversible. “A person with diabetes may experience blurred vision because of fluid level fluctuations that cause the eye to swell,” says Erika Villanueva, MD, an endocrinologist and clinical instructor of Medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. High blood-sugar levels cause fluid levels in some tissues to drop, including the lenses of your eyes.
When blood-sugar levels are heightened, the kidneys eliminate excess sugar through the urine, which results in increased urination and loss of fluid. “The subsequent dehydration causes increased thirst, and may cause itchy skin,” says Dr. Villanueva. You might also notice darkening in the body’s folds and creases (such as the armpits, groin, and neck). These velvety patches are caused by insulin resistance. Extra insulin circulating in the body may trigger skin cells to rapidly reproduce, and the new cells have more melanin (or pigment), resulting in a patch of skin that's darker than the skin surrounding it.
A slow-to-heal cut or bug bite can be a red flag for diabetes. Hyperglycemia (aka high blood sugar) decreases the amount of oxygen that can be delivered to wounds through the bloodstream, slowing the healing process and lowering the immune system. “I had a client who was diagnosed with diabetes after she had a mosquito bite that turned into a sore that wouldn't heal,” says Rachael Hartley, RD, CDE, a dietitian in private practice in Columbia, South Carolina. This effect on immunity may also lead to more frequent colds and illness.
Yeast thrives on glucose, and blood levels of glucose are consistently elevated in a person with diabetes, notes Villanueva. This is why women with diabetes are prone to chronic yeast infections, and men are more likely to develop jock itch. Yeast can grow in other areas, too — creating itchy rashes in skin folds, such as under the breasts, and between fingers and toes.
Diabetes can cause a decrease in sexual function in both men and women. Men may experience erectile dysfunction, while women may have vaginal dryness and problems with arousal. This is because high blood-sugar levels can damage blood vessels and nerves that you need to work properly for sexual response, explains Hope Scott Paul, MS, a Certified Diabetes Educator in Murrysville, Pennsylvania. Nerves control the body’s response to sexual stimuli, signaling an increase in blood flow to the genitals; damage to these areas contributes to sexual dysfunction.
Diabetes doesn’t only lead to dangerous spikes in blood sugar, but can cause dips — known as hypoglycemia — as well. Nighttime hypoglycemia may cause nighttime sweats, as well as vivid dreams. “I’ve heard these described as horrible nightmares,” says Paul. If hypoglycemia is suspected, it’s important to test blood-sugar levels and follow the 15/15 rule if numbers are low: Experts recommend having a 15-gram serving of carbohydrates, such as 4 ounces of fruit juice or 2 tablespoons of raisins, then waiting 15 minutes before retesting numbers. Those with diabetes may need to consult a doctor immediately, as dangerously low blood-sugar levels can lead to serious complications, and can even be life threatening if not addressed properly.
And if you're a frequent napper, the habit could be increasing your risk for developing diabetes. 2015 research published in Diabetologia found that regularly taking a nap an hour or longer raises risk of type 2 diabetes by 46 percent.
This may sound like good news, but if you’ve recently dropped a significant amount of weight without trying — or perhaps even while eating more than usual — it may be a sign of diabetes. “Insulin resistance causes sugar to stay stuck in the bloodstream rather than being moved into cells for energy storage,” says Hartley. “With diabetes, your body also loses sugar through urination. Because sugar is a source of energy, or calories, this can lead to weight loss.”
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