What Are the Early Signs of Type 2 Diabetes?

Know your risk factors, prevent, delay chronic illness

An African American woman with diabetes monitors her blood glucose levels.

Know your risk factors, prevent, delay chronic illness

The early signs of type 2 diabetes are often subtle or not there at all. A high blood sugar (glucose) level, which primarily affects people with type 2 diabetes, can sneak up on you that way.

You may not experience any symptoms until your blood sugar levels get too high and you find you have type 2 diabetes.

“Many people don’t know they have high blood glucose levels until they are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Often at this point, they’ve had it for some time,” says Athena Philis-Tsimikas, MD, an endocrinologist and corporate vice president of Scripps Diabetes Whittier Institute.

When blood sugar levels get too high, it can lead to a variety of health problems. People with type 2 diabetes, for example, are at an increased risk for heart disease and stroke.

“Knowing your risk factors and the early signs of type 2 diabetes can help prevent or delay development of this chronic condition that affects millions of people, including many here in San Diego County,” Dr. Tsimikas says.

“If you think you are at risk, talk to your doctor right away. The test for diabetes is a simple blood test.”

Who has diabetes?

More than 37 million people in the United States have diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Type 2 diabetes is the most common type.

In the last 20 years, the number of adults diagnosed with diabetes has more than doubled.

What is prediabetes?

About 96 million adults have prediabetes — a precursor to type 2 diabetes — but more than 80 percent don’t know they have it, according to the CDC. One reason for the lack of awareness is that the symptoms of prediabetes are subtle.

With prediabetes, sugar blood levels (glucose) are higher than normal but not high enough to be diagnosed as type 2 diabetes.

“You may not notice any symptoms, so it’s important to get your blood sugar tested if you think you are at risk,” says Dr. Tsimikas.

Who’s at risk for prediabetes?

You’re at risk for developing prediabetes if you:

  • Are overweight
  • Are 45 years or older
  • Have a parent, brother, or sister with type 2 diabetes
  • Are physically active less than 3 times a week
  • Have ever had gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy) or given birth to a baby who weighed more than 9 pounds
  • Are African-American, Hispanic/Latino American, American Indian, or Alaska Native (some Pacific Islanders and Asian-Americans are also at higher risk)

According to the CDC, people with prediabetes often develop type 2 diabetes within five years if they do not get treatment.

Can prediabetes be prevented?

You can prevent or reverse prediabetes with simple, proven lifestyle changes such as losing weight if you’re overweight, eating healthier, and getting regular physical activity.

If you need help, consider enrolling in a CDC-recognized diabetes prevention program near you that provides guidance and support for lifestyle changes. The Scripps Diabetes Prevention Program is part of the CDC’s National Diabetes Prevention Program and has many success stories.

Why does blood sugar level matter?

With type 2 diabetes, the body doesn’t use insulin correctly, resulting in a high level of sugar (glucose) in the blood. Insulin is a hormone that regulates the movement of sugar into the body for energy. When sugar cannot enter the cells, it collects in the blood and the body’s cells cannot use it for energy.

“Type 2 diabetes is more than just a blood sugar disease, however," says Dr. Tsimikas. "It is usually accompanied by high blood pressure and high fats, or lipids, in the blood. If this triple threat goes undetected, all three issues can cause health problems.”

Since symptoms of type 2 diabetes are not always obvious, paying attention to changes in your body and telling your physician about areas of concern can help you stay healthy.

Signs and symptoms of type 2 diabetes

Some of the warning signs of type 2 diabetes include:

  • Frequent urination – When blood sugar levels are high, the kidneys try to remove the excess sugar by filtering it out of the blood, leading to frequent urination, particularly at night.
  • Increased thirst – Frequent urination to remove excess sugar from the blood can over time cause dehydration and increased thirst.
  • Hunger – People with diabetes often do not get enough energy from the food they eat and as a result often feel constantly hungry.
  • Weakness and fatigue – Insufficient sugar moving from the bloodstream into the body’s cells can affect a person's energy levels. This can cause feelings of tiredness and fatigue.
  • Numbness or tingling in hands, legs or feet – High blood sugar levels can affect blood circulation and cause nerve damage, which can lead to pain, tingling or numbness in the hands and feet.
  • Blurred vision – An excess of sugar in the blood can affect tiny blood vessels in the eyes and cause blurry vision that may come and go.
  • Dry, itchy skin – Poor circulation along with loss of fluids from frequent urination can cause skin dryness and itchy skin.
  • Slow healing of cuts and bruises – High levels of sugar in the blood can affect your circulation and result in slow healing of small cuts and wounds. Slow wound healing increases the risk of infection.
  • In women, frequent yeast infections – Excess sugar in the blood and urine provides food for yeast, which can lead to infection, usually in the mouth, genital areas and armpits.

Type 2 diabetes diagnosis and treatment

If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, you'll need to combine a healthy diet and exercise with medication and regular blood sugar monitoring.

Managing blood sugar

Managing diabetes after a diagnosis means working closely with your physician and regularly checking your blood sugar levels so you will know how medications, food and exercise affect your blood glucose. Keep records of your results and review your blood sugar records with your physician every visit.

A registered dietitian and diabetes nurse can help you learn how to manage your diabetes.

Lifestyle change

When it comes to your diet, eat balanced meals and pay close attention to how foods affect your blood sugars, especially carbohydrates. Avoid processed foods or foods high in salt, saturated and trans fats and sugar.

Plan meals that are focused on lean protein, vegetables, fruits and foods high in fiber. Drink plenty of unsweetened liquids to maximize healthy weight and blood sugar levels.

Get plenty of regular exercise to reduce blood sugar levels and maintain a healthy weight.

Think proactively, stay informed, monitor your health and connect with support groups.

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