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Diabetes health centre

Diabetes - Diabetes: the facts

NHS Choices Feature

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Diabetes is a long-term condition that affects the body's ability to process sugar or glucose. It can have serious health consequences. However, with careful management, people with diabetes can continue to lead full, healthy and active lives.

People with diabetes are unable to stop the level of glucose in their blood from getting too high. This is because a hormone called insulin is either absent from their body, or not working properly.

Glucose is found in starchy foods, such as pasta, rice, bread and potatoes, as well as in fruit and sweet foods. When we eat food that contains glucose, insulin helps to move it from our blood into our cells, where it's broken down to produce energy. In people with diabetes, when the body doesn't make enough insulin, or the insulin doesn't work properly, that process is interrupted and glucose builds up in the blood. This is what causes the damaging symptoms of the condition.

Around 2.9 million people in the UK live with diabetes. In 2009, around 150,000 people were diagnosed with the condition, and it's estimated that a further 850,000 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 diabetes: in this type, the body can't produce any insulin. This type of diabetes usually occurs before the age of 40, and accounts for only around 10% of all cases. It's the most common form of childhood diabetes.
  • Type 2 diabetes: 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.

However, if treated effectively, people with diabetes can reduce the risk of those complications and also reduce the 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
  • 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 diabetes, 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 develop an understanding of how food and physical activity affect their blood glucose level. 

As 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. There is also advice on a healthy diet in our food and diet section.

However, most people with type 2 diabetes will eventually need to take tablets, and some will 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 and some take statins to reduce their cholesterol, or low doses of aspirin to help prevent stroke.

Medical Review: October 08, 2012

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