As Karen Murphy struggled to lift a heavy wooden desk out of her car one fall afternoon, the desk did exactly what she had hoped it wouldn’t: It crashed right onto her big toe.
The injury wouldn’t have been good for anyone. But for Murphy, a nurse who had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes just 3 months before, the stakes were even higher.
People with diabetes are prone to skin problems. Cuts, scrapes, and common infections like athlete’s foot can explode into serious issues.
“Often, it’s a double whammy,” says Erin Kelly, a diabetes nurse educator at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. Along with a higher chance of skin issues, diabetes can cause nerve damage, called neuropathy. So people may not feel anything when something is wrong with their skin.
They may also have circulation problems, meaning blood can’t get healing nutrients to the area.
Murphy’s doctors had already stressed the importance of skin care. That spurred her to see one right away.
“In the past I put things off. I thought, 'It’s not a big deal until it turns into a big deal,' ” she says. “But if something ever happens with my skin or wounds or feet now, it is a big deal.”
Murphy, now 46, had no lasting damage from her accident and makes sure to take careful care of her skin every day. Here’s what you can do to prevent damage from diabetes.
If you have diabetes, you’re more likely to get dry skin. This can lead to cuts and cracks, which can let bacteria get inside and cause infections. Moisturizing is an easy way to prevent this.
There’s no hard and fast rule for how often to do it, although putting cream or lotion on your whole body after a shower is a good start. “Your skin is more willing because more pores are open,” Kelly says.
You don’t need any special products for diabetes, but do try to keep it simple.
“Stay away from products that have ... a lot of chemicals in them,” Kelly advises. They can dry your skin even more. Instead, go for hypoallergenic products.
Other ways to moisturize include humidifying your home during the winter and drinking plenty of water every day. Lip balm will relieve chapped lips.
Pay Attention to Your Feet
“The first place you find neuropathy are the feet and hands because those are the extremities of the body,” says Sandra Barnaby, a chronic disease nurse manager at Montefiore Care Management Organization in New York City. So be sure to check them every day for sores, blisters, or cuts. That way, you can treat them before they get worse.
Make sure the spaces in between your toes are dry, especially after a shower and before you put on socks (which should also be dry). Don’t moisturize between your toes.
“Any moisture is a hot spot for bacteria growth and infection,” Kelly says.
You should also keep dry other places where water can gather, like between and under your breasts, between your legs, and under your arms.
“That’s where you don’t put moisturizer because it leads to fungal infections,” Barnaby says.
Cornstarch powder is one way to keep areas dry.
You can also change your socks during the day, as Murphy does, to prevent moisture buildup.
Take Care of Your Nails and Cuticles
Include them in your daily moisturizing routine, and keep your nails straight and smooth so they can’t catch on anything and tear.
Never cut your cuticles. It could leave space for fungus and bacteria to invade. And resist the temptation to get a pedicure.
“That can be tricky if you have neuropathy,” Kelly says. “You really should avoid getting treatment from anyone other than a podiatrist because of the risk for infection.”
Avoid Hot Water
Hot water may dry out your skin. But if you have neuropathy, you also may not be able to feel how hot it is and burn yourself.
“You should never put your hands or feet directly into the water without checking with another body part or having another person check,” Kelly says.
“One shower a day is sufficient,” she adds.
Sunburns can also dry your skin. That’s why you should always use sunscreen, especially on your head, neck, and hands.
“A simple face moisturizer that has some SPF built into it is perfect,” Kelly says.
Treat Cuts Right Away
Don’t wait for a tiny scratch to turn into a big problem. Wash any cuts with soap and water as soon as they appear. Don’t apply alcohol or iodine, which can dry out your skin. If it doesn’t get better over the next couple of days or if you have any signs of infection like a fever or pus, see your doctor.
Follow these guidelines, and you and your skin should have a healthy life together.
“Most people with diabetes live life without any major skin problems,” Kelly says.