Diabetes Complications

How does diabetes affect your body?

The longer you have diabetes, and the less you control your blood sugar, the higher risk you have of developing complications of diabetes. Because diabetes attacks every cell in your body, this disease has multiple catastrophic results if left untreated. In fact, in cases of uncontrolled diabetes, it is hard to find an organ system that is not affected by diabetes. 

If you don’t take action to control your blood sugar, expect to experience several complications. Many of these complications develop gradually and are permanent, disabling, and life-threatening.

Learn about the different complications of diabetes and what you can do to prevent and avoid diabetes complications.

Complications Caused by Diabetes


Structure of human eye in side view.Retinopathy is a disease of the retina which results in impairment or loss of vision. This disease is caused by damage to the blood vessels of the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye (retina). Scar tissue can pull the retina away from its normal position.

At first, you may have no symptoms, but as the condition worsens, you may experience symptoms such as spots or dark strings that appear to be floating around in your vision, blurred, fluctuating, or impaired color vision. You may also experience dark or empty areas in your vision as well as a loss in your vision.


Neuropathy is a disease or dysfunction of one or more peripheral nerves, typically causing numbness or weakness. Eventually, your joints are destroyed, and neuropathy can ultimately lead to amputation.

The pain can be so intense that powerful painkillers are of no help. Severe pain occurs typically in your hands and feet, which is why doctors ask about your feet if you have diabetes. The pain can be experienced as stabbing, burning, or tingling.


Atherosclerosis from diabetes, plaque inside an arteryAtherosclerosis is a disease of the arteries characterized by the deposition of plaques of fatty material on their inner walls. Eventually, the condition leads to coronary heart disease, angina, carotid artery disease, and chronic kidney disease. These conditions can cause a heart attack or heart failure.

Symptoms of atherosclerosis include angina or chest pain. Pain in your leg, arm, or anywhere else that has a blocked artery. Other symptoms include shortness of breath and fatigue. In addition, you may experience muscle weakness in your legs from the lack of circulation.


Nephropathy is a kidney disease that can lead to kidney failure, a potentially fatal condition. Eventually, you need daily dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Diabetes is the leading cause of end-stage renal disease. This disease affects approximately one-third of all diabetic patients. It is important to manage hyperglycemia, hypertension, and serum lipid levels to prevent the progression of nephropathy.

According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms include “worsening blood pressure control, frequent urination, a reduced need for insulin or diabetes medication, confusion or difficulty concentrating, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, persistent itching, and/or fatigue.”

Heart Disease

Man having chest pain, experiencing a heart attack due to heart disease Heart disease refers to several different heart conditions that can eventually lead to heart attack and heart failure.

The most common heart disease in the US is coronary artery disease. Unfortunately, many of the symptoms of heart disease are silent, which means a person doesn’t know they have this condition. Because of this, the recognizable symptoms are usually very severe. They include heart attack, arrhythmia, and heart failure. Arrhythmia is a fluttering feeling in the chest or palpitations.

If you are experiencing chest pain or chest and upper body discomfort, neck or upper back pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and shortness of breath, you may be experiencing a heart attack.

Symptoms of heart failure include shortness of breath, fatigue, and swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, abdomen, or neck veins.


A stroke is typically caused by a clot or ruptured blood vessel that obstructs blood flow to the brain. The longer this condition lasts without intervention, the more brain cells will die and lead to death. Diabetes can more than double your chances of having a stroke.

Signs that a stroke may be occurring are sudden. They include numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body, such as the inability to have a full smile, sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or difficulty understanding someone else’s speaking. Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes or a severe headache with no known cause can indicate a stroke. Other stroke symptoms include sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance, or poor hand-eye coordination.

Peripheral Vascular Disorder

A disorder of blood circulation that causes the blood vessels outside of your heart and brain to narrow, block, or spasm, which may eventually require amputation.

For people with diabetes, peripheral vascular disease can cause poor skin recovery for cuts and injuries, foot ulcers, and poor circulation, eventually leading to the potential need for amputation. You may also have severe enough pain that your mobility is limited. In addition, you may acquire life-threatening infections of the bones and bloodstream.

Some other symptoms of peripheral vascular disease include pain and cramping of the muscles, reduced mobility, and long-term disability. Symptoms may include reduced hair growth on your legs or cramps in your legs while lying in bed. Your legs and arms may turn reddish-blue or pale, and your legs and feet may have thin or pale skin, weak pulses, have wounds, or ulcers that won’t heal. Your toes may be blue, have severe burning, or have thick and opaque toenails. Also, your muscles may feel numb or heavy.

Alzheimer's Disease

Asian elderly man suffering from Alzheimer’s DiseaseA progressive mental deterioration. As mentioned, diabetes has the potential to damage all cells within your body, including brain cells.

Research indicates that deficient brain insulin can help lead to Alzheimer’s. Other potential causes are inflammation of cells from high blood sugar and the brain not getting all of the chemicals it needs due to the imbalance of these chemicals due to too much insulin. Heart disease can also lead to problems in the brain from damaged blood vessels.

According to the National Institute on Aging (NIH), symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease include memory loss, poor judgment and bad decisions, taking more time for normal daily tasks, repeating questions, trouble managing money, misplacing everyday items (keys, wallet, etc.), getting lost, mood or personality changes, and increased anxiety or aggression. These are the minor symptoms, and eventually, more serious symptoms develop.


A disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in any part of the body. 

The cells lose normal control mechanisms and are able to multiply continuously. They can then invade nearby tissues, travel to other body parts, and promote new blood vessels for these cancerous cells to gain essential nutrients to continue increasing throughout the area or body.

Although there are several different types of cancers, some of the more common symptoms include:

  • Pain (such as with bone cancer)
  • Headaches that don’t get better for days
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue that lasts more than a few days
  • Changes in your skin (moles, bumps, marks, coloring, hair, etc.)
  • Sores that don’t heal
  • Coughing or a sore throat that doesn’t heal and get better
  • Unusual bleeding
  • Anemia (feeling weak due to not enough healthy red blood cells)

Fatty Liver Disease

3D view of human liver anatomy, liver shown in redA disease in which fat builds up in the liver. Some fat is normal, but excessive fat can cause inflammation in the liver, leading to scarring. In extreme cases, this leads to liver failure, a life-threatening emergency.

Unfortunately, symptoms don’t show until you are pretty far into the five stages of fatty liver disease. Your doctor may catch the disease before you experience the following symptoms: abdominal pain or a feeling of fullness in the upper right abdomen. Nausea, loss of appetite, or weight loss can indicate fatty liver disease. Yellow-colored skin or eyes (jaundice), swollen abdomen and legs (edema), extreme fatigue or mental confusion, and a feeling of being weak are also symptoms.

If you have diabetes, controlling your blood sugar will help prevent fatty liver disease. Maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly also help prevent this disease. In addition, alcohol or medication abuse can lead to this disease, so limiting the use of both items can help prevent this disease.


The invasion and growth of germs in the body from bacteria, viruses, yeast, fungi, or other microorganisms, infections can begin anywhere and spread throughout your entire body.

Common infections for someone with diabetes are influenza, pneumonia, foot infections, yeast infections, outer ear infections, and infections of the nose and sinuses. A doctor may recommend the flu immunization due to the high risk of contracting infections. Yeast infections can occur for both men and women in the urinary tract and on the skin. People with diabetes are more susceptible to serious infections, especially non-healing foot wounds caused by poor blood circulation.

Skin and Nail Conditions

Persons foot with diabetic skin complications, dry and infected skin woundsSkin and nail conditions are common for people with diabetes. Below is a list of common skin and nail conditions:

Skin Conditions

  • Multiple skin tags
  • Patches on your skin (yellow, red, or brown)
  • Velvet patches of darker skin
  • Hard or thickening skin
  • Blisters, possibly very large
  • Itchy rash
  • Hot and swollen skin painful to the touch
  • Open sores and wounds
  • Shin spots
  • An outbreak of reddish-yellow bumps
  • Raised bumps on your skin red or skin-colored
  • Dry and itchy skin
  • Yellowish scaly patches on and around your eyelids

Nail Conditions

  • Thickened nails
  • Brittle nails
  • Yeast or fungal infection
  • Damaged nails
  • Discolored nails
  • Ingrown toenails
  • Rippled toenails (appears to have stripes)

Hearing Impairment

According to the ADA, hearing loss is twice as common in people with diabetes than for those who don’t have the disease. Hearing loss is typically a slow process, and many friends or family members notice this subtle change before the individual notices it.

Symptoms of hearing loss are frequently asking other people to repeat themselves or having trouble in conversations with more than one other person. This would extend to having trouble hearing in crowded places, such as a restaurant or social gathering. It may be difficult to discern the difference between the voice of a small child and a woman. You may notice that the volume on your TV, computer, or device is turned up too loud for others.

Erectile Dysfunction

Man and woman in bed, man is frustrated by erectile dysfunctionThe inability of a man to maintain an erection, erectile dysfunction typically leads to an unfulfilled sex life, stress, anxiety, embarrassment, low self-esteem, relationship problems, and the inability to impregnate your partner. This illness is more common in people with type 2 diabetes due to poor blood circulation.

Symptoms include having trouble getting an erection, keeping an erection, and a reduced desire for sex. Erectile dysfunction, in many cases, is caused by a physical condition. Physical conditions include heart disease, atherosclerosis, high cholesterol or blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, MS (multiple sclerosis), certain medications, tobacco use, Peyronie’s disease, alcoholism, substance abuse, sleep disorders, treatments for prostate cancer, surgery or injury that affect the pelvis or spinal cord, and low testosterone.

Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)

The imbalance of hormones causes women to develop cysts on the ovaries, the leading cause of female infertility. Having PCOS makes you more likely to be insulin resistant, which then leads to type 2 diabetes.

The leading causes of PCOS are obesity, family history, and being insulin resistant. Symptoms include irregular periods or no periods (caused by the lack of ovulation), higher than normal levels of male hormones that may cause excess hair on the face and body, acne, thinning hair, and multiple small cysts on the ovaries.


Depressed woman in bed looking unhappyDepression is a medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think, and how you act.

The cause of depression can be from the stress and rigor of managing your blood sugar. It can also be overwhelming to be diagnosed with diabetes or additional complications that result from diabetes. Depression can lead to poor lifestyle decisions, such as poor diet, inactivity, tobacco use, drinking, or other decisions that further impact diabetes. Depression affects your ability to perform and communicate effectively, which can interfere with controlling your blood sugar levels.

According to the APA (American Psychiatric Association, symptoms of depression include:

  • Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite (weight loss or gain)
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Loss of energy or increased fatigue
  • Inability to sit still, pacing, hand wringing or slowed movements or speech
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide (Suicide Prevention Hotline)

How To Prevent Diabetes Complications

If you suspect that you may have any of these complications, please seek medical help.

Notice that many of these serious diseases have common symptoms. This is why your doctor may ask about your feet, numbness, and sores if you have diabetes.

Some of these illnesses and diseases are also cyclic, meaning diabetes tends to lead to a condition or the condition tends to lead to diabetes.

If you have diabetes, it is critical that you control your blood sugar. Failure to do so can have dire consequences. Regularly checking your blood sugar and keeping it from rising too high or too low will prevent and avoid many of the complications of diabetes.

If you have type 2 diabetes or prediabetes, you can further prevent diabetes complications by reducing insulin resistance. The quickest way to improve insulin sensitivity is to adopt a healthy diet full of whole foods without sugar and simple carbohydrates. In addition, ensuring you are getting adequate sleep, plenty of exercise, and managing stress will also help improve insulin sensitivity and avoid diabetes complications.