Diabetes is an endocrine system disorder in which the body does not produce enough insulin (a hormone that helps regulate blood levels of glucose and amino acids) or does not use it properly. Related health problems can be severe, including blindness, kidney disease, amputation, heart disease, stroke and nerve damage (diabetic neuropathy).

Diabetes affects an estimated 26 million people in the United States have diabetes, over eight percent of the total population. Known as a silent killer, 7 million people are unaware that they are affected. Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States and the subject of research projects and clinical trials nationwide.


Symptoms of diabetes may include:

  • A need to empty the bladder more often. Plus, the volume of urine is greater.
  • Excessive thirst, due to loss of fluid in the body
  • Weight loss with a larger appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Blurred vision
  • Drowsiness
  • Fast breathing
  • Coma (in severe cases)

Causes and Risk Factors for Diabetes

While the exact cause of diabetes is not yet known, an inactive lifestyle and a regular diet of fats, salt and sugar account for a large number of cases. Persons at risk also include those who over age 45, overweight or a member of certain ethnic groups (African American, Latino and Native American).

Because diabetes can damage vital organs and blood vessels, people with diabetes are at higher risk for heart attack and stroke. Diabetes also contributes to the buildup of plaque in the arteries and may cause damage to the walls of smaller blood vessels, preventing the transfer of oxygen from the blood to cells or causing blood to leak into tissues. Poor circulation often results from diabetes, which causes wounds to heal poorly, leading to infections. Women with diabetes may be prone to endometrial cancer.

Types of Diabetes

There are two types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 - Previously known as juvenile onset diabetes, this type occurs when the pancreas makes little or no insulin. The body's own immune system may attack the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Most often seen in children and young adults, type 1 diabetes is treated with daily insulin injections and careful meal planning. Regular exercise is also important in controlling the disease.
  • Type 2 - Almost at the epidemic stage, this disorder accounts for more than 90% of all cases. In this adult disorder, the body becomes unable to make enough insulin or to use it properly. Treatment involves medications (insulin and other drugs), careful eating and exercise.

During pregnancy, some women experience gestational diabetes. Pregnancy hormones tend to make the body resist insulin. This type of diabetes usually goes away soon after the baby is born, but women who experience gestational diabetes may become diabetic later in life.


High blood sugar readings on a blood test are an indication of diabetes, which is often discovered during a routine visit to the doctor or when trying to determine the cause of frequent urination or thirst. A glucose tolerance test may be done if a woman who is pregnant is believed to have gestational diabetes, which is brought on by pregnancy.


Weight control, diet and exercise play a critical role in controlling diabetes.

Other options are:

  • Insulin injections. Using a very thin needle, the patient injects insulin through the arm, leg or stomach wall every day.
  • Oral drugs. Specific drugs can often lower blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes by prompting the pancreas to release insulin and increasing its ability to work. Other types of oral drugs do not affect the release of insulin but increase the body's response to its own insulin

© 2000-2022 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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