Diabetes Complications: What You Can Do

Medically Reviewed by Michael Dansinger, MD on March 15, 2024
3 min read

When diabetes gets out of control, it can take a toll on your body. Too much sugar in your blood can damage nerves and blood vessels, which can lead to many different types of problems.

But those complications aren’t set in stone for everyone with diabetes -- there’s a lot you can do to avoid them. Along with treatment, good health habits can help you keep your disease under control and keep other troubles at bay.

High blood sugar can impact different parts of your body:

Eyes. Diabetes raises your odds of having vision problems, including blindness. It can cause:

  • Cataracts. The lens of your eye gets cloudy.
  • Glaucoma. This can damage the nerve that connects your eye to your brain and keep you from seeing well.
  • Retinopathy. This involves changes to the retina in the back of your eyes.

Heart. Years of high blood sugar may harm your body’s blood vessels and nerves that take care of your heart. That raises your chance of having heart disease. It can cause heart failure early on and heart attacks or strokes later. High blood pressure and high cholesterol make the problems even more likely.

Kidneys. Diabetes can affect blood vessels in your kidneys, too, so they may not work as well. After many years of trouble, they might stop working.

Feet. High blood sugar can harm blood flow and damage nerves, and that may cause cuts, scrapes, or sores to heal slowly. You may lose some feeling in your feet, which keeps you from noticing injuries that can get infected. If an infection gets serious, it might mean you need to have a foot removed.

Nerves. If high blood sugar damages your nerves, called diabetic neuropathy, you might feel pain, tingling, or numbness, especially in your feet.

Skin. Diabetes may make you more likely to have yeast infections, itching, or brown or scaly patches.

Erection problems. Men with diabetes may be at risk for sexual problems, because high blood sugar can harm blood flow and damage nerves that the body needs to get and keep an erection.

Good habits go a long way toward preventing the other health problems that diabetes can cause. Make these tips part of your regular health routine:

Keep tight control of your blood sugar. It’s the best way to avoid diabetes complications. Your levels should stay in these healthy ranges as much as possible:

  • Between 70 and 130 mg/dL before meals
  • Less than 180 mg/dL 2 hours after you start a meal
  • Glycated hemoglobin or A1C level below 7%

Watch your blood pressure and cholesterol. If they’re too high, you’re more likely to get other health problems like heart disease. Try to keep your BP below 140/90 and your total cholesterol at or below 200. Your doctor may prescribe medications to help you do that.

Get regular checkups. Your doctor can check your blood, urine, and do other tests to spot any problems. These visits are especially important, since many diabetes complications don’t have clear warning signs.

Don’t smoke. Lighting up harms your blood flow and raises blood pressure. If you need help to quit, your doctor can recommend treatments that might work for you.

Protect your eyes. Get a yearly eye exam. Your doctor can look for damage or diseases.

Check your feet every day. Look for any cuts, sores, scrapes, blisters, ingrown toenails, redness, or swelling. Wash and dry your feet carefully each day. Use lotion to avoid dry skin or cracked heels. Wear shoes on hot pavement or on the beach, and socks and shoes in cold weather. Test bathwater before you get in to avoid burns on your feet. Keep your toenails trimmed and filed straight across.

Take care of your skin. Keep it clean and dry. Use talcum powder in places where skin may rub together, like your armpits. Don’t take very hot showers or baths, or use drying soaps or bath gels. Moisturize your skin with body and hand lotion. Stay warm in cold winter months. Use a humidifier in your bedroom if it feels too dry.