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Diabetes mellitus

Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Dr Roger HendersonReviewed on 13.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Diabetes, known as diabetes mellitus in full, is when the sugar levels in your blood are too high. This is due to a deficiency of a hormone called insulin, or alternatively, the insulin that is produced is not working properly. Insulin is made by your body and it helps move glucose (blood sugar) from the bloodstream into the cells of your body so it can be used as energy. The most common types of diabetes are type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes.

The typical symptoms of type 1 diabetes are feeling very thirsty and needing to urinate more than normal. Having to get up a lot in the night to go pee is a common complaint in people with undiagnosed diabetes. Other symptoms can include losing weight, feeling particularly tired, changes to your vision or sensations in your hands and feet, cuts or wounds taking longer to heal than normal, or getting more infections than usual such as thrush.

Everyone who suffers from diabetes will need to attend a yearly eye check, foot check and blood pressure check, and have regular blood tests to check how their kidneys are functioning and other tests. This is because diabetes can lead to damage to your eyes and kidneys so it is important to catch and treat any problems early. It can also affect the nerves to your feet.

What are the different types of diabetes?

In type 1 diabetes, your body's immune system attacks the pancreas where insulin is made so your body is unable to make insulin. It can start at any age but is more common for it to begin when someone is young and symptoms usually start and progress quickly. You also are more likely to get weight loss in this type of diabetes. It can be life-threatening if not treated.

In type 2 diabetes, you may have no symptoms or they will be mild to start with and worsen slowly over a long time. It is usually found in older people or people who are overweight. Type 2 diabetes occurs when your pancreas gradually doesn’t produce enough insulin or the insulin is not working effectively to move the sugar from the blood into your body's cells.

Gestational diabetes is a form of diabetes that develops in some women who are pregnant. Usually, women won’t have any symptoms of it but it is checked for at antenatal checks. This form of diabetes may disappear after the pregnancy.

There is a group of people who fall into a category called pre-diabetes (also known as borderline diabetes or having impaired fasting glucose.) This is a stage before type 2 diabetes, where your blood sugar levels are higher than normal but not high enough to class as having type 2 diabetes. It is a crucial stage where it is hugely important to make lifestyle changes such as exercising, eating healthily and losing weight if you are overweight. By doing these things it is possible to avoid developing diabetes altogether.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

There is no cure for diabetes. The aim is to manage it to a point that it has as little impact on your life and long-term health as possible. In type 2 diabetes, healthy lifestyle changes such as losing weight and regular exercise can improve the condition. You may need to take tablets to help control it, and insulin injections in advanced cases.

If you suffer from type 1 diabetes, you will need to take insulin for life. This is via a small injection into your abdomen that you will learn to administer yourself.

Gestational diabetes is slightly different: for most women, diabetes will resolve once they've given birth. It may come back for future pregnancies.

When should I see my doctor?

If you are concerned that you have symptoms that suggest diabetes, you should speak with your doctor. If you are well, you can book a routine appointment. If you are unwell, or your symptoms are severe, you should arrange an urgent appointment, or call NHS 111 for advice.

What will my doctor do?

The doctor will ask you about your current symptoms, your past medical history, and any relevant family medical history. They will ask you to do a urine sample, they may test your blood sugar level which is just a small prick at the end of your finger and they may also take some blood tests. Blood tests are required to confirm a diagnosis of diabetes, and if this happens, you will be linked in with a specialist hospital team who will manage your diabetes jointly with your GP.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 13.10.2023