You could have diabetes and not know it.
The symptoms of diabetes can be very mild. Although symptoms are similar for both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, Type 2 diabetes symptoms are especially hard to pinpoint. “In many patients with Type 2 diabetes, the disease progresses slowly, and they may not realize that they have developed it without screening. There are millions of patients who have diabetes who are not aware that they have it,” says Dr. Asha M. Thomas, an endocrinologist with Sinai Hospital of Baltimore.
In fact, of the 29 million people in the U.S. who have diabetes, 8 million are undiagnosed, according to the American Diabetes Association.
However, you don’t know just by your symptoms if you have diabetes. You need to see a doctor who can check your blood sugar levels. Those numbers tracked by doctors will reveal if you are living with diabetes.
So what are the most common symptoms of diabetes?
You have to urinate more often. This is because your kidneys are working harder to process extra sugar in your urine.
You feel more thirsty than usual. As you urinate more, you feel more dehydrated – and that makes you want to drink more liquids. Some people also feel hungrier than usual.
You have increased urinary tract, yeast or vaginal infections. Sometimes, OB-GYNs help to diagnose diabetes based on an increased frequency of these infections, says Lucille Hughes, a certified diabetes educator and director of diabetes education at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, New York. Changes to the body’s immune system put those with diabetes at higher risk for these infections, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
You experience unintentional weight loss. While many people want to lose weight, the weight loss that occurs when you have uncontrolled diabetes is not a healthy weight loss. It happens because your body can’t properly use insulin to help process glucose, a sugar found in food, for fuel. So your body starts to process fat and muscle for fuel, says Susan M. De Abate, a nurse, certified diabetes educator and team coordinator of the diabetes education program at Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital.
You have flu-like symptoms or feel more fatigued. Sometimes a spouse may complain that his or her partner used to love going out but now just wants to stay home. “They’ll say, ‘I knew something was different about them,'” Hughes says, describing the fatigue.
The fatigue comes from a lack of glucose, your body’s No. 1 energy source. “It’s as if you’re a car and you run on gasoline, but the gas is outside the car and can’t make it in,” Hughes says.
You experience occasional blurred vision. Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to a condition called diabetic retinopathy, which affects your vision. Eye doctors sometimes play a role in helping to diagnose diabetes because of the vision symptoms a patient experiences.
How Symptoms Differ Between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes
The symptoms of Type 1 diabetes are usually similar to those of Type 2, but they come about more suddenly. For example, a child may have flu-like symptoms that in only a few days lead a parent to take the child to the emergency room where Type 1 diabetes is diagnosed, Hughes says. Parents may bring their child to the emergency room because “their child looks like a lump on a log,” Hughes says.
In contrast, the symptoms for Type 2 diabetes can be drawn out over several years before the symptoms are bad enough for someone to notice the difference.
Why Diabetes Symptoms Are Confusing
The symptoms of diabetes, particularly Type 2, can be hard to track because they appear slowly over time and because the signs of aging and the signs of diabetes can overlap. “People have dry skin or they use the bathroom a lot [when they are older]. It’s hard to tell which is which,” De Abate says.
Your symptoms could also overlap with the effects of certain drugs. For instance, if you take a type of drug called a diuretic, which makes you urinate more, you might think your increased urination is only from the medication.
Some patients get so used to living with certain symptoms – be it fatigue or increased urination – it would never occur to them that it could indicate a health problem. “Some people go undiagnosed for years, and their bodies handle it because they still produce some insulin,” De Abate says. Still, that doesn’t mean they are producing enough insulin or processing it properly.
When to See a Doctor
“If someone has any of the symptoms, I would recommend seeking medical therapy as soon as possible,” Thomas says.
Set an appointment with your doctor and ask about a fasting blood sugar check. You should also inquire about a hemoglobin A1C check, which measures your average blood sugar over the previous three months. “Not all doctors use the A1C test unless the person has risk factors that jump out. I encourage patients to ask for this test,” De Abate says. The test could also reveal if you have prediabetes – which means you still have time to change your eating habits and physical activity so you don’t develop full-blown Type 2 diabetes.
Although anyone can develop Type 2 diabetes, your risk is higher if you are overweight or have high cholesterol and high blood pressure. You’re also at a higher risk if you smoke or have a family history of diabetes.
If you see your doctor regularly, you can keep a closer eye on possible symptoms and risk factors. “If someone has an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, such as a family history, a history of gestational diabetes, obesity, age or increased risk by race, we would carefully watch for any symptoms,” Thomas says. “These are the patients we routinely counsel on the importance of prevention for Type 2 diabetes.”