Diabetes symptoms: common signs of type 1 and type 2, causes and treatment - including blood sugar test

Many people have type 2 diabetes for years without realising as the early symptoms can be hard to spot

More than 4.9 million people in the UK have diabetes but thousands of cases are still undiagnosed.

Type 2 diabetes is far more common than type 1 and accounts for around 90% of all adult cases in the UK, while only 8% have the latter, according to Diabetes UK.

The charity warns that 13.6 million people are now at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and 850,000 people are currently living with the condition but do not know it.

Research has shown that some lifestyle changes, including diet, exercise and weight loss, can be effective in reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes by around 50%.

Health experts stress that early diagnosis is vital as complications can begin five to six years before some people find out they have type 2 diabetes, so being able to spot the symptoms is essential.

What causes diabetes?

The lifelong condition is caused by problems with the production of insulin in the body and is often linked to being overweight or inactive, or having a family history of type 2 diabetes.

It causes the level of glucose in the blood to become too high and can lead to a variety of serious health conditions, such as heart disease or a stroke.

Those who are diagnosed with diabetes need to eat a healthy diet, take regular exercise and carry out regular blood tests to ensure blood glucose levels stay balanced. People with type 1 diabetes also require regular insulin injections for the rest of their life.

As type 2 diabetes is a progressive condition, medicine may eventually be required and this will usually be in the form of tablets.

You are more at risk of developing type 2 diabetes if you:

  • are over 40 (or 25 for south Asian people)
  • have a close relative with diabetes (such as a parent, brother or sister)
  • are overweight or obese
  • are of Asian, African-Caribbean or black African origin (even if you were born in the UK)

If you are worried about type 2 diabetes, you can check your risk on the NHS website by answering a few questions. Depending on your risk score, you might be able to get help from the Healthier You NHS Diabetes Prevention Programme.

What are the symptoms of diabetes?

Many people have diabetes without realising as the symptoms do not necessarily make you feel unwell, making it difficult to spot.

However, there are a few telltale signs to look for that could help with diagnosis. The main symptoms, according to the NHS, include:

  • peeing more than usual, particularly at night
  • feeling thirsty all the time
  • feeling very tired
  • losing weight without trying to
  • itching around your penis or vagina, or repeatedly getting thrush
  • cuts or wounds taking longer to heal
  • blurred vision

Type 1 diabetes can develop quickly over weeks or even days.

How is diabetes diagnosed?

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are often diagnosed following blood or urine tests.

If you are diagnosed with type 1, a diabetes nurse will show you how to manage the condition, including how to test your own blood glucose and to inject insulin.

Your GP will also discuss whether you need to take medicine, your diet and exercise and other lifestyle factors, such as alcohol consumption and smoking.

How is diabetes treated?

Most people will need medicine to control diabetes, and those with type 1 will need to take insulin every day to ensure blood glucose levels are kept under control.

Some diabetes medicines can cause low blood sugar, known as hypoglycaemia or hypos, and in these cases a GP may recommend checking your blood sugar regularly using a finger-prick test.

If you take insulin at least twice a day and have frequent or severe hypos, you might also be offered a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) or flash monitor which is worn on the skin to allow you to check your blood sugar level at any time.

A healthy diet and around 2.5 hours of physical activity per week can help to manage blood sugar levels. The NHS recommends eating a wide range of foods, including fruit, vegetables and starchy foods like pasta, and keeping sugar, fat and salt to a minimum.

There is evidence that eating a low-calorie diet (800 to 1,200 calories a day) on a short-term basis (around 12 weeks) can help with symptoms of type 2 diabetes, and some people have even found that their symptoms go into remission.

However, a low-calorie diet is not safe or suitable for everyone with type 2, such as those who need to take insulin, so it is important to seek medical advice before going on this type of diet.

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