Symptoms of diabetes

The warning signs of diabetes can be so mild that, at first, they often go unnoticed. This is especially true for type 2 diabetes. Many people don’t find out that they have the condition until complications from long-term damage occur.

With type 1 diabetes, on the other hand, symptoms usually appear quickly – within a matter of days or weeks. The symptoms also tend to be much more severe.

Both types of diabetes have some of the same tell-tale warning signs:

  • Hunger 
  • Fatigue
  • Excessive urination
  • Excessive thirst
  • Dry mouth
  • Itchy skin
  • Blurred vision
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Wounds that won’t heal
  • Numb or tingling hands or feet

Type 1 diabetes

With type 1 diabetes, symptoms often go unrecognised so that individuals land up in hospital in a coma or near-coma. This life-threatening emergency is the result of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), where blood levels of glucose and acidic ketone bodies are incredibly high.  

Clinically, people with diabetes feel unwell. They may experience nausea and vomiting, and a loss of appetite. They urinate excessively and, if the condition isn’t recognised and treated urgently, the person becomes drowsy and eventually comatose. Parents of newly diagnosed diabetic children often say that their child recently started wetting their bed at night.

Type 2 diabetes

Many people don’t experience any symptoms of type 2 diabetes at first and are diagnosed coincidently during a visit to the doctor, a life-insurance medical check-up, or after developing a complication of the disease. However, there may be subtle signs of the condition, e.g. frequent infections, poor wound healing, and fatigue.

In men, an early sign of type 2 diabetes is occasional erectile dysfunction. Candida infection of the tip of the penis (Candida balanitis) is also common. In women (particularly older women), persistent vaginal thrush (Candida albicans) may be an early sign of the condition.

Gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes isn’t usually associated with any symptoms. This is why pregnant women have to be tested – usually at the first pre-natal visit and then again between weeks 24 and 28.

Classic signs of diabetes (e.g. fatigue and frequent urination) are often confused with symptoms common to pregnancy. Some pregnant women might have had type 2 diabetes before their pregnancy without realising it.

Information supplied by Jeannie Berg, diabetes educator and Chairperson of the Diabetes Education Society of South Africa (DESSA), and reviewed by Dr Joel Dave (MBChB PhD FCP Cert Endocrinology), Senior Specialist in the Division of Diabetic Medicine and Endocrinology, University of Cape Town. August 2018.

Read more:

Causes of diabetes

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