Updated 16 February 2017

FAQ: could you have diabetes?

Diabetes is one of the most serious, common and fastest growing diseases of the 21st century.

Diabetes (short for "diabetes mellitus"), is a condition in which the level of sugar in the blood is too high. If left untreated, high blood sugar can lead to serious problems: it can seriously damage various organs and raise risk for heart disease.

That is why controlling blood sugar is central to managing diabetes if you're diagnosed, and why it's so important for everyone to have their blood sugar levels checked regularly. The sooner you find out if you have diabetes, the better, because the sooner it's diagnosed the easier it is to treat and lower your risk for dangerous complications.

Glucose and insulin

Glucose (a simple sugar), comes from the food we eat, and it's an important energy source. Normally, the hormone insulin, produced by the pancreas (an organ closely associated with the digestive system) assists the body in utilising glucose: it helps to move glucose from the blood into the cells and keep blood sugar levels healthy.

In diabetes, however, depending on which type you have, either your body doesn't make enough insulin, or your body can't use the insulin it does make.

There are 3 main types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 diabetes usually occurs quite suddenly in children and young people before age 30. In this form of the disease, the body doesn't produce enough insulin: the immune system mistakenly attacks the cells in the pancreas that manufacture this essential hormone. As these cells are destroyed, less and less insulin is produced to process glucose, and blood glucose levels rise. People with type 1 diabetes need regular insulin injections.
  • Type 2 diabetes is by the most common, and it is this form of the disease that is growing at such an alarming rate in the modern world: about 85-90% of people with diabetes have this type. Typically it develops in people over 35, usually from 40 onwards, and is more likely in those who are overweight and inactive – it is largely a disease of lifestyle. In most cases, the body still produces insulin, but the cells can't use it properly: this is known as insulin resistance. 
  • Gestational diabetes occurs in some pregnant women, and may cause problems during pregnancy and birth. Both mother and child have higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later on.

What about pre-diabetes?

Pre-diabetes, sometimes called “borderline diabetes”, means thatblood glucose levels are above normal, but not high enough for a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. People with pre-diabetes often go on to develop diabetes. However, if they manage their blood sugar well, it may be possible to delay or prevent diabetes.

How do you know you have diabetes?

You may have diabetes or pre-diabetes for years and not know – sometimes there are no obvious symptoms, or they may be subtle. This is why it's so important to have your blood glucose tested, so you can know for sure.

These symptoms may indicate diabetes; if you experience any, consult your doctor:

  • Frequent urination
  • Increased hunger or thirst
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Blurred vision
  • Tingling or numbness in hands or feet
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Sores and bruises that are slow to heal
  • Skin problems e.g. rashes
  • Frequent infection


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Diabetes expert

Dr. May currently works as a fulltime endocrinologist and has been in private practice since 2004. He has a variety of interests, predominantly obesity and diabetes, but also sees patients with osteoporosis, thyroid disorders, men's health disorders, pituitary and adrenal disorders, polycystic ovaries, and disorders of growth. He is a leading member of several obesity and diabetes societies and runs a trial centre for new drugs.

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