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What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition where the body’s blood sugar (glucose) level is too high. 1 The body breaks down the food one eats into glucose and carries it to the cells in the body. These cells use a hormone called insulin to turn the glucose into energy. 1 In type 1 diabetes, the body doesn’t make enough insulin, and this causes the body’s blood sugar levels to rise. 1 In type 2 diabetes, the body’s cells don’t use insulin properly – a condition called insulin resistance.1 Initially the body reacts by producing more insulin, but over time the body cannot produce enough insulin to control its blood sugar level. 1

In 2016, the International Diabetes Federation estimated that 7 % of South Africans between the ages of 21 and 79 years had diabetes – based on the country’s population estimates it meant that nearly 4 million people in South Africa could have diabetes. 2 More alarming is the fact that this prevalence had increased by 155 % from 2010! 2

What causes diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes occurs when your immune system, the body’s system for fighting infection, attacks and destroys the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. 3 Scientists think that genes (inherited from your parents) and environmental factors, such as viruses, might trigger the disease. 3 Type 1 diabetes usually develops before age 30, typically in children and adolescents. 4

Type 2 diabetes – the most common form of diabetes – is caused by several factors, including lifestyle factors and genes. 3 Type 2 diabetes can develop at any age but is more common in people who: 3,4

  • Are overweight or obese
  • Are 30 years or older
  • Have certain racial or ethnic backgrounds (in South Africa diabetes is more common in the Coloured and Asian/Indian race groups )
  • Have family members who have type 2 diabetes

Other causes of diabetes include: 3

  • Hormonal disorders
  • Pancreatic trauma, inflammation or cancer
  • Certain medications

What are the symptoms of diabetes?

Symptoms of type 1 diabetes can start suddenly – in a matter of weeks – whereas in type 2 diabetes they usually develop slowly – over a few years. 3 Many people with type 2 diabetes may have no symptoms, or the symptoms can be so mild that they don’t even notice them until they develop complications. 3 Symptoms of diabetes include: 3

  • Increased thirst and hunger
  • Going more frequently to the toilet to pass urine
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision
  • Numbness or tingling of the feet and hands
  • Sores that do not heal
  • Unexplained weight loss

What are the complications of diabetes?

People with diabetes have an increased risk of developing a number of serious health problems. 6 Consistently high blood sugar levels can damage the blood vessels and nerves of the body and this can lead to serious complications such as: 6,7

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Kidney failure
  • Blindness
  • Foot ulcers

In addition, people with diabetes also have a higher risk of developing infections. 6

visual: human body with complications of diabetes

How do you manage diabetes?

There is no cure for diabetes. 4 The goal of treatment is to keep blood sugar levels close to normal as this will help to prevent complications. 4

Treatment involves: 4

  • A proper diet
  • Exercise
  • Losing weight if you’re overweight
  • Checking your blood sugar regularly
  • Medications – oral diabetic medicines and/or insulin injections

If you have diabetes, learn as much about it as you can. Talk to a nurse trained in diabetes education. The nurse can help you understand what to eat, how active to be, how to check your blood sugar levels, and how to adjust your insulin (if needed). 4

References: 1. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Diabetic Heart Disease. [online] [cited Nov 15]. Available from: URL: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/diabetic-heart-disease. 2. Centre for Diabetes and Endocrinology (CDE). Diabetes in South Africa: Assessing the Data with Fear and Trembling. https://www.cdediabetes.co.za/uploads/images/files/Diabetes%20in%20South%20Africa.pdf. 3. National Institute of Diabetes and Disgestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). Symptoms & Causes of Diabetes. [online] 2016 Nov [cited 2018 Nov 13]. Available from: URL: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/symptoms-causes. 4. Merck Manual Consumer Version. Quick Facts: Diabetes. [online] 2017 Dec [cited 2018 Nov 18]. Available from: URL: https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/quick-facts-hormonal-and-metabolic-disorders/diabetes-mellitus-dm-and-disorders-of-blood-sugar-metabolism/diabetes. 5. The South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. [online] 2013 [cited 2018 Nov 15]. Available from: URL: http://www.hsrc.ac.za/uploads/pageNews/72/SANHANES-launch%20edition%20(online%20version).pdf. 6. International Diabetes Federation. What is diabetes: Diabetes complications. [online] [cited 2018 Nov 19]. Available from: URL: https://www.idf.org/aboutdiabetes/what-is-diabetes/complications.html 7. National Institute of Diabetes and Disgestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). Diabetes, Heart Disease, and Stroke. [online] 2017 Feb [cited 2018 Nov 13]. Available from: URL: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-problems/heart-disease-stroke.

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