1.2 million people (over 2 years of age) or almost 5% of the population of Australia, have been diagnosed with diabetes, but an estimated 500,000 more go undiagnosed.  As the fastest growing chronic disease in Australia, it’s important to understand the types, causes, symptoms and complications of diabetes.

What is diabetes?

To function properly, our bodies need to produce energy from glucose or sugar found in the food we eat.  Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, is essential to move glucose from the food we have eaten into cells to be used as energy.  Diabetes occurs when the body ignores the insulin produced by the pancreas,  or stops producing insulin.  This affects a person’s ability to use sugars properly.  People with this chronic disease will experience high levels of glucose in their blood, and the high glucose levels cause damage to blood vessels and nerves over time leading to complications.

There are several types of Diabetes:

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease where the insulin producing cells in the pancreas have been destroyed by the body’s immune system.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when your body ignores insulin produced by the pancreas and glucose builds up in the blood vessels rather than being moved into cells to be used.

Pre-diabetes occurs when the body presents with higher than normal sugar levels in your blood.  This doesn’t necessarily mean you will be diagnosed with diabetes but can be a precursor to the disease.

Gestational diabetes occurs when insulin-blocking hormones produced by the placenta during the pregnancy affect glucose levels in the body.

How is diabetes caused?

The exact cause of type 1 diabetes isn’t known, however there is a strong family link. We have also identified a number of different viruses which are linked to developing type 1 diabetes, and people with lower levels of vitamin D are more likely to develop type 1 diabetes.  We do know it isn’t related to a person’s health or lifestyle choices and currently is not preventable, although a significant amount of research is being conducted into prevention.  The onset of type 1 diabetes occurs most frequently in people under 30 years of age, however new research suggests almost half of all people who develop the condition are diagnosed over the age of 30. About 10-15 per cent of all cases of diabetes are type 1.

Type 2 diabetes is also linked to your family’s health history as well as your own health and lifestyle choices.  A lack of exercise and poor diet contribute to a positive diagnosis, and the biggest risk factor is a large waist measurement.  The condition can be managed through diabetes medications or insulin injections to maintain glucose levels, coupled with a healthy eating and exercise plan.  Whilst type 2 diabetes is usually diagnosed later in life, the increasing incidence of childhood obesity has resulted in rising numbers of children and young adults diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

Ongoing healthy lifestyle choices such as healthy eating and exercise are required to keep pre-diabetes from developing further.  Approximately one in three people with pre-diabetes will go on to develop type 2 diabetes.  There are two types of pre-diabetes conditions: impaired glucose tolerance where glucose levels are higher than normal after consuming a large amount of sugars, but not quite at a level that would confirm diabetes; and impaired fasting glucose where glucose levels escalate in the fasting state, again not high enough to be classified as diabetes.

Triggered by hormonal changes during pregnancy, gestational diabetes risk factors include a family history of type 2 diabetes, being over 30 and women of particular cultural groups, such as Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, Polynesian and Melanesian women.  The child cannot contract diabetes and the condition ceases upon the birth of the child; however, a mother who has had gestational diabetes is at higher than normal risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.  A healthy diet and exercise may be enough to manage the situation but in some cases, medication (usually insulin) may also be required.

Symptoms of Diabetes

Some symptoms of diabetes may not always be noticeable.  But common symptoms across all types of diabetes include:

  • being more thirsty than usual
  • frequently passing urine
  • feeling extremely fatigued
  • itching and skin infections, particularly around the genitals
  • blurred vision
  • ·nausea and vomiting
  • slow-healing wounds
  • weight loss and
  • mood swings

Additionally, men may experience erectile dysfunction, poor muscle strength and a decreased sex drive.  Women may experience urinary tract and yeast infections as well as dry, itchy skin.  Gestational diabetes doesn’t tend to present any symptoms and is usually picked up in blood glucose testing as part of regular pregnancy checkups.  It’s important to chat with your GP if you experience any of these symptoms or suspect you may have diabetes.

Complications caused by diabetes

The longer you live with diabetes, the greater the chance of damage caused by high glucose levels in the blood resulting in serious complications such as:

  • kidney damage (nephropathy)
  • eye damage (retinopathy)
  • ·nerve damage to the feet and other parts of the body (neuropathy)
  • heart disease (for example, angina or heart attacks), strokes and circulation problems in the legs
  • sexual difficulties, including erectile dysfunction
  • foot ulcers or infections resulting from circulation problems and nerve damage

 How Ramsay Pharmacy can provide support managing the disease

Our friendly pharmacists are here to support you every step of the way.  We can guide you through the steps needed to manage your diabetes well and assist by testing your blood glucose (sugar) level.  Our Ramsay Pharmacy team provide a free one-on-one consultation in the pharmacy to help you understand your medicines to obtain the most out of them and improve your future quality of life.  Click here to find your nearest pharmacy and arrange a consultation.