Diabetes is a long-term condition that affects the body's ability to process sugar or glucose. It can have serious health consequences. But with careful management, people with diabetes can lead full, healthy and active lives.
In people with diabetes, the level of glucose in the blood is too high. This is because a hormone called insulin is either absent from the body or not working properly.
Glucose is found in starchy foods, such as pasta, rice, bread and potatoes, and in fruit and sweet foods. When we eat food that contains glucose, the hormone insulin helps to move it from our blood to the cells where it's broken down to produce energy. But when the body doesn't make enough insulin, or insulin doesn't work properly, that process is interrupted and glucose builds up in the blood. This is diabetes.
Around 2.6 million people in the UK have diabetes. In 2008, around 145,000 people were diagnosed with the condition. Diabetes UK estimates that up to 500,000 people may have diabetes that hasn't been diagnosed. These people may be experiencing symptoms that they can't explain or they may assume that the symptoms are due to other causes, such as getting older or having a busy lifestyle.
Types of diabetes
There are two main types of diabetes.
- Type 1: in this type, the body can't produce any insulin. This type of diabetes usually occurs before age 40, and accounts for only around 10% of all cases. It's the most common form of childhood diabetes.
- Type 2: this is where the body doesn't make enough insulin, or where the body becomes resistant to insulin so that it doesn't work properly. It's the most common form of diabetes, accounting for around 90% of cases. It's frequently linked with being overweight.
Both forms of diabetes are life-long conditions that have serious potential consequences. Left untreated, diabetes can lead to heart disease, stroke, nerve damage and blindness.
But if treated effectively, people with diabetes can reduce the risk of those complications and reduce day-to-day symptoms.
Many people with diabetes lead lives as healthy and active as those without the condition. There are world-class athletes who have diabetes, such as Sir Steve Redgrave.
Symptoms of diabetes
The symptoms of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes include:
- increased thirst, and drinking a lot of fluids
- passing a lot of urine
- being tired for no reason
- weight loss
- genital itching or repeated bouts of thrush
- slow healing of wounds
- blurred vision
In type 1 diabetes, symptoms typically develop over a few weeks and quickly become very obvious. Learn more by reading Type 1 diabetes - symptoms.
In type 2, symptoms can develop more slowly, over a period of months. Some people with type 2 diabetes have very mild symptoms, which they believe have other causes. A few people may have no symptoms at all. Learn more by reading Type 2 diabetes - symptoms.
Treatment for diabetes
The aim of any diabetes treatment is to keep blood sugar levels as normal as possible.
People with diabetes need to understand how food and physical activity affects their blood glucose level.
Because people with type 1 diabetes can't produce any insulin, they must put insulin into their bodies regularly for the rest of their lives. The most common way to do this is with daily insulin injections. People with type 1 diabetes can be taught to inject themselves. Alternatively, some people with type 1 diabetes use an insulin pump. This is a device about the size of a pack of cards, which sends insulin into the body through a thin tube. Learn more in Type 1 diabetes - treatment.
In type 2 diabetes, changing to a healthier diet and lifestyle can often control the condition without the need for further treatment. You can learn more about achieving a healthy weight in our Lose Weight section. And there's advice on a healthy diet in our Food and diet section.
But most people with type 2 diabetes eventually need to take some oral medication (tablets). Some of them need insulin injections. You can learn more in Type 2 diabetes - treatment.
People with diabetes may also take medication to reduce the risk of health complications. For example, many take pills to reduce blood pressure. Some take statins to reduce their cholesterol, or low doses of aspirin to help prevent stroke.