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Oh, Sugar! The Warning Signs of Diabetes

Medically Approved by Dr. Edward Salko

Table of Contents

Diabetes is a metabolic condition shown primarily by elevated blood sugar levels due to insufficient or faulty use of insulin (the hormone that regulates glucose). Unfortunately, diabetes is a lifelong disease. However, it is manageable through proper treatment and lifestyle correction. 

To increase your chances of living a normal life with this disease, it is crucial to recognize the early warning signs of diabetes. These include getting thirsty all the time, frequent urination, fatigue, unexplained weight loss, and more. Read more about these early signs and your risk of developing diabetes. 

1. Increased Thirst and Dry Mouth

A woman experiencing increased thirst as one of the early warning signs of type 2 diabetes

As diabetes keeps your blood sugar or glucose at a high level, your body, particularly your kidneys, will work twice as hard to remove the excess sugar. They will filter out of the blood and flush it straight to the urinary tract for excretion. 

In this process, additional fluid is needed to produce the urine. The fluid will be pulled out from your tissues, leaving you dehydrated. Thus, you’ll always feel thirsty, and your mouth becomes less moist. 

Increased thirst in diabetes1 develops even if you drink water every day. Hence, it’s easier to spot if you’re always hydrated than when you neglect your water intake since the consequence is far less expected.

2. Frequent Urination

A man experiencing frequent urination as one of the warning signs of diabetes

In connection with increased thirst, frequent urination also made the list of early warning signs of diabetes. As you would expect, the kidneys’ mission to normalize blood sugar levels by filtering out the excess glucose means an increase in the production output of urine, forcing you to frequently visit the bathroom. 

3. Dry and Itchy Skin

Skin itchiness as a sign of type 2 diabetes

Individuals with developing diabetes may notice skin dryness as a precursor to other potential dermatological problems linked to the disease. The plummeting moisture levels in the skin are attributed to the body’s effort to excrete the extra sugar through urination.

Skin dryness due to diabetes can also lead to itchiness. According to a 2021 review, itchy skin among diabetic patients stems from skin tissue dehydration2, which is exacerbated by poor management of the disease.  

Pro tip: Scratching your skin if you’re diagnosed with diabetes is a big no-no, as it could lead to scrapes. Keep in mind that wounds tend to heal longer if you have high blood sugar levels. Instead, moisturize your skin and use anti-itch products, as your doctor recommends. 

4. Increased Hunger

A woman showing increased hunger as a warning sign of type 2 diabetes

The dysfunction in insulin processing among diabetes patients induces hunger. This is despite eating sufficient food on time. 

Hence, insatiable hunger can be one of the early warning signs of diabetes. Clinically, this symptom is called polyphagia or hyperphagia. It can range from increased appetite to extreme hunger that causes weakness. 

Polyphagia happens because your body does not generate enough energy from food. Not because it’s not enough but because insulin failed to metabolize glucose. 

5. Fatigue

A woman experiencing fatigue due to high blood sugar levels

When diabetes is developing, chances are you often feel extremely exhausted. As mentioned before, the issues with insulin interfere with energy production. Plus, dehydration caused by frequent urination and your body’s effort to eliminate the excess sugar also contributes to fast energy depletion. 

6. Blurry Vision

A woman struggling to read due to blurry vision caused by diabetes

People often associate eye issues with age. However, it can also be one of the early warning signs of type 2 diabetes. High glucose concentration in the blood can lead to diabetic retinopathy. This condition results in blurry vision because the extra sugar influences blood flow, which, in turn, damages the blood vessels of the eye’s retina. 

Diabetic retinopathy may go away as soon as the blood sugar level returns to normal. However, if diabetes is not managed properly, let alone detected before it gets complicated, you will be at risk of losing your vision. 

7. Unexplained Weight Loss

Sudden weight loss as an early warning sign of diabetes

You might find yourself losing weight without putting any effort if you’re starting to develop diabetes. As established above, insulin dysfunction creates a significant disparity in energy generation. 

Your cells cannot rely on glucose for energy conversion despite its copious amounts. As an alternative, your body will utilize fats, which are essentially stored glucose. Losing fats typically equates to losing weight. 

8. Tingling Hands and Feet

Tingling feet due to the development of diabetes

About 50% of individuals with diabetes3 experience numbness or tingling in their extremities. This condition is clinically referred to as diabetic neuropathy. In some cases, this diabetes symptom produces nerve pain or cramps that start in the hands or feet and extend to the arms and legs. 

Much like diabetic retinopathy that impacts the eyes, diabetic neuropathy also results from blood vessel injuries that disrupt nerve function. In some cases, this condition escalates to complete nerve damage.

Prevalence and Risk Factors of Diabetes

Among various metabolic disorders, diabetes is notorious for its high prevalence. That is to say, many people worldwide are diagnosed with the disease, specifically roughly around 422 million4, according to the World Health Organization. 

In the US, 1 in 10 Americans develop diabetes5, as shown in the 2022 report of the American Diabetes Association. 28.7 million individuals were diagnosed with diabetes, and a whopping 8.5 million Americans were undiagnosed. 

Did You Know? Diabetes mellitus is classified into two: type 1 and type 2. The main difference between the two is that type 1 diabetes can occur at any age and is caused by an autoimmune response that destroys the pancreatic cells. This results in the failure to produce insulin. Type 2 develops gradually and can be due to poor insulin usage on top of impaired production. 

Since the permanent cure for diabetes is yet to be discovered, failure to have it diagnosed also means missing your chance for proper management. This move could lead to complications like kidney failure and vascular disease. 

Aside from the early warning signs of diabetes, educating yourself about the risk factors is imperative. This way, you can initially assess your likelihood of developing the disease. The following are the most common risk factors for diabetes, based on its type.

Type 1 diabetes: 

Type 2 diabetes:

  • Prediabetes (having above-normal-level blood sugar but not high enough to be classified as diabetes yet)
  • Obesity or being overweight
  • Family history
  • Pregnancy (gestational diabetes)
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
Gestational diabetes explained: You can develop diabetes if you are pregnant. This is called gestational diabetes. The warning signs of gestational diabetes are the same as the ones mentioned above. You may also notice itchiness in the genitalia. Your risk of gestational diabetes inflates if you have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or obesity.

Learn more about diabetes through our free guides:

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you feel when your blood sugar is too high?

High blood sugar or hyperglycemia can leave you feeling tired or drowsy, thirsty, and having the urge to urinate more frequently. You will also feel hungry and sometimes breathing too rapidly. These symptoms may vary from person to person depending on the severity of the condition and other factors. Thus, consult your doctor as soon as the warning signs of diabetes manifest.  

What are the symptoms of diabetes in females?

The symptoms of diabetes in women include general warning signs like increased thirst, hunger, and urination, as well as weight loss, dry skin, fatigue, and nerve damage. But you can also experience frequent yeast infections or vaginal thrush and nausea.

What is a diabetic belly?

The accumulation of abdominal or visceral fats due to diabetes is often referred to as a diabetic belly. It results from the abnormal production and function of insulin produced by the pancreas. While fat build-up in the abdomen can be a warning sign of diabetes, it can also be linked to other factors and conditions, like hormonal imbalance and overconsumption of alcohol. 

The Bottom Line

Knowing the warning signs of type 2 diabetes can dictate how quickly you can get yourself diagnosed with the condition. Keep in mind, however, that these symptoms are not exclusive and conclusive during the initial assessment. For this reason, your healthcare provider will likely order lab tests for diabetes, which could include the comprehensive diabetes diabetes profile blood test

Sources:

1 Sastre MTM, Sorum PC, Kpanake L, Mullet E. Judging the possibility of the onset of diabetes mellitus type 2 from reported behavioral changes and from family history. Clin Diabetes Endocrinol. 2023 Jan 11;9(1):1. doi: 10.1186/s40842-022-00147-w. PMID: 36631896; PMCID: PMC9832779.

2 Stefaniak AA, Krajewski PK, Bednarska-Chabowska D, Bolanowski M, Mazur G, Szepietowski JC. Itch in Adult Population with Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: Clinical Profile, Pathogenesis and Disease-Related Burden in a Cross-Sectional Study. Biology. 2021; 10(12):1332. https://doi.org/10.3390/biology10121332

3 Hicks CW, Selvin E. Epidemiology of Peripheral Neuropathy and Lower Extremity Disease in Diabetes. Curr Diab Rep. 2019 Aug 27;19(10):86. doi: 10.1007/s11892-019-1212-8. PMID: 31456118; PMCID: PMC6755905.

4 Staff, E. (n.d.). Diabetes. Retrieved January 10, 2024, from https://www.who.int/health-topics/diabetes#tab=tab_1

5 Staff, E. (n.d.). Fast Facts: Data and Statistics about Diabetes. Retrieved January 10, 2024, from https://professional.diabetes.org/sites/default/files/media/diabetes_fast_facts22322.pdf

6 Filippi CM, von Herrath MG. Viral trigger for type 1 diabetes: pros and cons. Diabetes. 2008 Nov;57(11):2863-71. doi: 10.2337/db07-1023. PMID: 18971433; PMCID: PMC2570378.

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