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7 Ways High Blood Sugar Affects Your Body—And Why You Should Track It

These type 2 diabetes symptoms—from numb feet to painful blisters and sex problems—can occur when blood sugar is out of control.

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Everyone needs a certain amount of sugar in their blood. Carbohydrates from our food and drink are broken down into glucose—a type of sugar that travels into the bloodstream to feed our body’s cells and energize us. Insulin, a hormone produced in the pancreas, is often described as the key that unlocks cells so glucose can get in and be used for energy.

Insulin resistance, then, is like the door becoming harder to open. The body responds by producing more insulin, which works—for a while. But eventually, if the insulin resistance continues to worsen or the pancreas can’t keep up, the result is the high blood sugar levels characteristic of diabetes.

Treatments to bring blood sugar to healthy levels include lifestyle changes such as healthy eating and exercise, since obesity is thought to be one of the main causes of insulin resistance. Tracking your blood sugar regularly will also help you take control of your levels, and medication or insulin may also be needed. But unless these steps are taken, over time poor or uncontrolled blood sugar can cause damage to nerves and blood vessels, creating a host of health problems.

Medically reviewed in September 2019.

One easy way to manage your blood sugar levels
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If you are taking insulin, trying to control your blood glucose or have been diagnosed with gestational diabetes, one easy way to manage your levels—and reduce your risk of health problems—is to track your blood sugar on a regular basis. There are many over-the-counter test strip kits, meters and lancing devices available that make it easy to test your own blood glucose.

By monitoring your levels, you’ll also have a record of your progress to discuss with your healthcare provider at each appointment. Use Sharecare to record your results, so you don’t have to remember your levels from day to day. You can download Sharecare for your iPhone and for Android.

Here’s how to check your levels using test strips:

  1. Wash your hands.
  2. Insert a test strip in your meter.
  3. Get a sample of blood using your lancing device.
  4. Hold your test strip into the sample of blood and wait.
Loss of sensation
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Nerve damage is not uncommon, especially in the feet and legs. Symptoms include unsteadiness when you stand or walk, as well as numbness that can limit your ability to feel hot, cold and pain. Along with the peculiarity of not having any sensation when you walk, being numb means you could suffer a foot injury—such as a blister or cut—and not realize that you’ve been injured. Such injuries could lead to infection. 

While loss of sensation is one side of the coin, the other is that feet may feel tingly, or you may experience shooting pain.

Boils and styes
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People with type 2 diabetes are more susceptible to bacterial infections, including boils, styes and infections of the hair follicles and skin around the nails. Often skin problems are an early indicator of type 2 diabetes. If caught early enough, they can be easily treated and even prevented.

Itchiness
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If your skin feels itchy, you may wonder if it’s your clothing or an allergy. But diabetes, which can cause extremely dry skin, may be the culprit. To avoid or control the itchiness, use gentle soap and shampoo, don’t bathe with hot water and apply cream to soothe your skin. It’s also important to avoid scratching the itch; scratching can cause skin lacerations, opening them to infection.

Poor circulation
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Type 2 diabetes can lead to a narrowing and hardening of blood vessels in the feet and legs, causing poor blood flow. If your feet are cold, wear socks. Don’t use hot water or a heating pad to warm your feet if they’re numb; you won’t feel the heat and can easily burn them. Poor circulation can also cause your skin to itch in the lower parts of your legs.

Sex Problems
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Damaged nerves can affect the sex organs in both men and women. Men may experience erectile dysfunction when the flow of blood to the penis is disrupted and/or the nerves are damaged. Men with diabetes also tend to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity, adding to the problem. 

For women, nerve damage may lead to vaginal dryness, making intercourse painful. Women may also lose sensation in the vaginal area, interfering with their ability to achieve orgasm.

Fungal infections
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People with type 2 diabetes are especially susceptible to fungal infections caused by Candida albicans, a common type of yeast infection. Symptoms typically include red rashes that occur in moist skin folds, which are often surrounded by blisters and scales. The armpits, groin, between fingers and toes and corners of the mouth are common breeding grounds for this infection.

Gastroparesis
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The vagus nerve is responsible for moving food through the digestive tract. When the nerve is damaged or not working, the digestive process slows or stops—a disorder called gastroparesis. When food is essentially delayed in the stomach, blood sugar levels become erratic, making it more difficult to manage. Among other digestive problems, food can harden, making it difficult to pass into the small intestine.

Sources:
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Insulin Resistance and Prediabetes.”
American Diabetes Association. “Life doesn’t end with type 2 diabetes,” “Skin Complications,” “Preipheral Neuropathy,” “Foot Complications,” “Complications.”
Joslin Diabetes. “Diabetes Learning Center.”
Mayo Clinic. “Diabetic Neuropathy.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Candidiasis.”
J Casqueiro, J Casqueiro, & C Alves. “Infections in patients with diabetes mellitus: A review of pathogenesis.” Indian journal of endocrinology and metabolism. 16 Suppl 1(Suppl1), S27–S36. 2012.

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