Phil Day By Superintendent Pharmacist Published:

Living with diabetes can seem like an uphill struggle when it’s first diagnosed, but with a positive mindset and working closely with health professionals, people with diabetes can lead a full and active life.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a lifelong condition which causes the blood sugar (glucose) levels in the body to increase, which can lead to long term health problems if left unchecked. One in 15 people around the world are thought to be living with diabetes, including roughly 4.7 million Brits. 

The body needs a hormone called insulin, which is produced by the pancreas, and tells the cells in the body to take up glucose from the blood and use it for fuel. In diabetes, this process fails, and blood glucose levels can rise to levels that are much higher than normal. 

When the blood glucose level rises, it can cause a lot of harm in the longer term, such as heart and kidney disease, strokes, nerve damage, and eyesight problems. In some cases it can lead to amputations.

What types of diabetes are there?

There are various types: type 1 and type 2 are the most common types of diabetes, but there are other rarer types as well, such as gestational diabetes in pregnancy.

In type 1 diabetes, the problem is that the body attacks its own cells in the pancreas and stop it from being able to make insulin; in type 2 diabetes, the pancreas becomes less effective at making insulin, and/or the body’s cells become less responsive to it. 

What causes diabetes?

Type 1 usually starts in childhood, and while we don’t know exactly what causes it, genetic and environmental factors are thought to be involved. 

Type 2 usually starts in middle or older age and can also be linked to genetic factors but also to excess weight, physical inactivity, stress, and having high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Symptoms of diabetes

Common symptoms of high blood glucose levels, which could indicate undiagnosed or poorly controlled diabetes, include:

  •         Excessive thirst
  •         Frequent urination
  •         Feeling unusually tired
  •         Blurred vision
  •         Unexpected weight loss

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms regularly, you should visit your GP. They can check your blood glucose level with a blood test, or they may suggest a Glucose Tolerance Test (GTT) which will tell you if your body has difficulty metabolising the intake of sugar and carbohydrates. This tolerance test can also help diagnose gestational diabetes in pregnant women.

Managing diabetes

Some people with type 2 diabetes are able to manage their condition with lifestyle changes alone, such as increasing their activity levels and following a healthy diet. If these changes do not help, there are many different medication options your GP can discuss with you, such as tablets or insulin. People with type 1 diabetes will be prescribed insulin to replace the hormone that the body can’t produce.

For all people with diabetes, it’s important to monitor blood sugar levels regularly. If blood sugar levels are regularly too high (hyperglycaemia), medication or insulin doses may need to be increased, and if they become too low (hypoglycaemia), which is more common in patients using insulin, this can be remedied by having sugary food or drink, or taking a glucose tablet. Having blood sugar that’s too low can be dangerous, and your GP will tell you what to look out for and what to do.

The most common way of monitoring blood sugar levels is through a finger prick blood test, but there are new options on the market including a wearable monitor that gives 24/7 results without the need to draw blood.

For more advice, talk to your GP or pharmacist, or visit the Diabetes UK website.