Watch out for signs of heart disease, uncontrolled blood sugar, infection, eye problems, and more
People living with diabetes learn to manage their disease with proper diet, regular exercise, and medication. Success is measured by how well you can control your blood sugar.
However, many factors can affect blood sugar besides diet and activity. Illness, stress, social drinking, and women’s menstrual cycles can all influence blood sugar levels and upset your normal routine.
If you have diabetes, you may know that and make adjustments accordingly. But some symptoms of trouble are always reasons to seek medical advice, whether it’s a call to your doctor or a trip to the emergency room.
“Truthfully, with the ability of people to test their blood sugar at home, we can treat many more things at home than we used to be able to,” says Andrew Drexler MD, who directs UCLA’s Gonda Diabetes Center.
This does not mean you should problem solve without your doctor’s help, he adds, but rather, that you might be able to substitute a phone call for a trip to the emergency room.
Here are the diabetes symptoms you should never ignore
These are three common warning signs of uncontrolled blood sugar.
With any of these symptoms, you should test your blood sugar and call your doctor. Depending on how high your blood sugar is, medication may fix the problem or you may have to seek medical care to replace fluids and electrolytes and to get blood sugar back under control.
If left unchecked, high blood sugar can lead to serious, life-threatening conditions. Type 1 diabetes patients can develop diabetic ketoacidosis, which happens when the body starts breaking down fats instead of sugars and a dangerous buildup of ketones (byproducts of fat metabolism) occurs.
In type 2 diabetes patients, hyperosmolar coma can occur. “It’s essentially uncontrolled diabetes, which leads to dehydration and altered consciousness and which could be fatal if untreated,” says endocrinologist Adrian Vella, MD, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Strange behavior can also signal low blood sugar. This can happen when a person’s medication works too well and overshoots the target.
Drinking some juice or eating a snack usually is enough to raise sugar levels and normalize behavior. Often, however, the diabetic patient is not in the state of mind to recognize that something is wrong. If no one else is around to prompt you, your blood sugar may sink low enough to cause you to lose consciousness.
Most of the time, patients will recover on their own, but if they are taking certain medications, emergency medical treatment may be required.
“If it’s either a long-acting pill that can cause hypoglycemia,” such as the sulfonylurea drugs chlorpropamide, glyburide, or glimepiride, “or a long-acting insulin that can cause hypoglycemia, then it very well may be necessary to go to the emergency room,” Drexler tells WebMD.
Infections, Swollen or Bloody Gums, Foot Sores
Have your doctor check a cut that’s infected, swollen or bloody gums, or a wound that won’t heal. And watch out for a sore on the foot, which may be the first sign of a diabetic foot ulcer.
All diabetes patients should get regular foot exams by a health care professional — and check their own feet on a daily basis — even if sores are not present. And remember to bathe your feet daily in warm (but not hot) water, following up with a moisturizer, to prevent dry skin, which may crack and lead to infection.
“Infections in diabetics can get out of control and they need to be taken very seriously,” says Drexler.
Fungal infections occur more frequently in diabetes patients, Vella tells WebMD. “Fungal infections of the skin are more likely to occur when your blood sugar is consistently above the magic number of about 180-200 [mg/dL],” he says. “That’s because hyperglycemia itself actually interferes with the white blood cells’ ability to respond to such infections.”
A red, itchy rash — especially in moist areas such as skin folds — can signal a fungal infection.
Eye Problems, Including “Floaters”
If you develop sudden changes in vision, experience eye pain, or see spots or lights floating in your field of vision, call your doctor. You may need to see an ophthalmologist. People with diabetes are at increased risk of an eye condition called retinopathy, which can lead to vision loss.
Even without eye symptoms, diabetes patients should see an ophthalmologist yearly for a routine eye exam.
Heart Disease Symptoms — and Not Just Chest Pain
Patients with diabetes have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and twice the normal rate of related emergency events, such as heart attack and stroke.
So get any potential heart disease symptoms checked out.And keep in mind that heart symptomsaren’t
“It can sometimes be shoulder pain, it can sometimes present just as nausea,” Drexler says. “But if there’s any suspicion that it’s cardiac in origin, it’s very important to go to the ER.”
It’s also possible to have heart disease that doesn’t have obvious symptoms, so make sure you see your doctor regularly and have your cardiovascular risk factors evaluated.
Will Ryan of Alford, Mass., who has had diabetes for 30 of his 70 years, was driving home one night a felt a sharp pain in his chest. “It was more intense than just a muscle pull,” says Ryan, author of a blog called the Joyful Diabetic. It lasted only a few seconds, but it happened again before he got home. He went to the ER, where an ECG showed normal heart function.
Less than a week later, he woke up with his heart pounding and his pulse racing at 90 beats per minute – higher than usual for Ryan. A second ECG was also normal, but given two possible heart-related events, a cardiologist ordered a heart monitor.
Over two weeks, the monitor picked up more curiosities. “I had a number of instances where my heart rate dropped below 40,” Ryan says. “I was not aware of it because I was sleeping.”
Ryan agreed to a stress test, which showed his heart was oxygen deprived, suggesting that one of the blood vessels feeding his heart was blocked. Cardiac catheterization confirmed the blockage, but also showed that Ryan’s other blood vessels had taken up the slack such that no treatment was required.
“I probably had a heart attack, but I never knew it,” Ryan says, adding that doctors told him this was not uncommon in people with diabetes.
Ryan says he’s very aware of his body’s signals from living with his disease, but he has never been complacent. This recent experience has only reaffirmed that unusual symptoms deserved medical attention.
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