Updated 16 February 2017

Why you should keep taking your diabetes medication

Proper diabetes management involves taking your medication consistently and as prescribed to avoid fluctuating blood glucose levels.


Following chronic treatment for diabetes isn’t all about treating physical symptoms and ailments. When you feel okay, it doesn’t mean you can stop taking your medicine or change your dosage. It means the medicine is working and you need to keep on taking it.

If you feel worse, you should talk to your doctor and change to a different medicine or dosage until your condition improves.

Are you still not quite sure why it’s so important to take your diabetes medication? The consequences below will help motivate you to always follow your doctor’s instructions.

Serious complications

The chronic medication you take for diabetes keeps your blood-sugar levels consistent. It’s unhealthy for your blood-sugar levels to be under control the one day and out of control the next. In fact, inconsistent blood-sugar levels can cause serious complications, especially in the long run.

Constantly raised blood-sugar levels cause damage to the small blood vessels and the nerves in your body. Diabetes, when poorly controlled, also affects almost all the organs in the body.

Areas that become seriously affected are the heart, blood vessels, nervous system, kidneys, legs, feet, eyes and skin.

Read: Recognising diabetes complications

Things that can go wrong

Uncontrolled blood-sugar levels as a result of not taking your medicine can lead to the following:

Heart and blood-vessel disease: Because of damage to the small blood vessels, you’ll have a higher risk for heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and chest pain (angina).

The small blood vessels supply blood to the heart muscle, as well as the muscle walls of the big arteries. This is why small blood vessel disease can cause such serious damage.

Nerve damage: When the small blood vessels that supply the nerves with oxygen and nutrients are damaged, the nerves themselves become damaged. This causes a numb, pins-and-needles feeling that starts in the toes and feet, and which then moves up the leg. You might even, at a later stage, lose all feeling in your legs and sustain injuries that can become seriously infected.

The same can happen in your upper limbs. The nerves that supply your abdominal organs such as the stomach can also become affected, leading to nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and/or constipation known as gastroparesis. Men might also experience erectile dysfunction (impotence).

Kidney damage: The tiny network of blood vessels in your kidneys also becomes damaged by uncontrolled diabetes. This network of blood vessels is the “filter” of the body that helps to clear it of toxins.

Read: Losing weight may delay kidney problems in diabetics

When these blood vessels can’t do their job anymore, the build-up of toxins in the body can make you very ill. What’s more, the kidneys can become so damaged that you may develop kidney failure. The result is permanent dialysis or a kidney transplant – a complex, risky and extremely expensive procedure.

Eye disease: By not taking your medication correctly, the small blood vessels of the eye are affected, causing damage to the retina – a condition called diabetic retinopathy. Cataracts and glaucoma are also more common in people with diabetes.

Read: 1 in 3 diabetics at risk of eye disease

Skin disease:
Uncontrolled blood-sugar levels have a negative effect on the body’s ability to fight off infections. For this reason, people with diabetes are more prone to serious bacterial and fungal skin infections.

What’s the worst that can happen?

The consequences of not taking your medicine consistently could be devastating and ultimately life threatening:

- Heart and blood-vessel disease could lead to a major heart attack or stroke, and subsequent death.
- Damage to the nerves could result in the amputation of a toe, foot or leg.
- Kidney disease could lead to kidney failure and death without a timeous kidney transplant.
- Damage to the retina of the eye could cause blindness.
- Skin infection could develop into gangrene, causing sepsis (infection of the blood), which could lead to the need to amputate the affected limb, or even death.

Apart from causing permanent disability, diabetes complications can be incredibly expensive to treat.

Is your diabetes poorly controlled? Discuss your treatment with your doctor and get it right – after all, your life depends on it.

Read More:
Type 1 diabetes can shave a decade off your life
Poverty makes diabetes care tougher
Technology lightens the burden of diabetes

Image: Diabetic woman using her insulin from Shutterstock

Sources: International Diabetes Federation, Mayo Clinic, WebMD


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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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