Complications of Diabetes Mellitus and Preventive Measures

Complications of diabetes mellitus can range from mild to life-threatening. Some complications can be acute with symptoms developing quickly, but because diabetes mellitus is a chronic disease, other complications can develop slowly over time making signs and symptoms difficult to recognize especially in the early stages of their development.

By learning to identify the early warning signs, many of the complication's of diabetes mellitus can be prevented or reduced.

What are the complications of diabetes mellitus?

Most diabetes mellitus conditions can be monitored and controlled. "When it is not well controlled, it affects many parts of the body, particularly the heart, eyes, kidneys, and nerves."(1)

Some complications can come on abruptly and will require immediate medical care, if care is not provided these complications can be life threatening. These acute conditions are related to blood glucose levels that are out-of-control and include:

  • Diabetes ketoacidosis – this complication is more often seen in type 1 diabetics and is the result of a breakdown of ketones (fatty acids) due to a lack of glucose stored in the cells.
  • Hyperglycemic Hyperosmolar Non-Ketotic Syndrome (HHNS) – this complication is associated with a deficiency of insulin and dehydration.
  • Hypoglycemia – this complication can result when too much insulin or oral medications or other factors cause too great of a drop in blood glucose levels.

Chronic complications of diabetes mellitus include changes to the blood vessels and organs of the body due to long-term elevated blood glucose levels and include:

  • Atherosclerosis, also know as hardening of the arteries
  • Cardiovascular disease affecting both the large and small blood vessels associated with the heart
  • Cerebrovascular disease affecting the blood vessels that supply the brain with oxygen and nutrients
  • Diabetes-related kidney problems affecting the kidney’s filtering action
  • Diabetic Retinopathy affecting the blood vessels of the eye and causing blood vessels to leak into the retina. This can lead to blindness.
  • Foot ulcers because of a decrease in the blood flow to the feet.

Preventing complications of diabetes mellitus

Complications of diabetes are caused by the damage resulting from prolonged high blood sugar levels on blood vessels and organs of the body. It is important to control blood sugar levels.

For people with type 1 diabetes you can achieve control through the use of insulin, in the form of insulin injections or an insulin pump.

For people with type 2 diabetes regulation of blood sugar levels is often controlled with proper diet and regular exercise, combined with oral medication.

A person living with diabetes mellitus should get regular eye examinations by an ophthalmologist or optometrist, perform daily self exams of their feet, and have regular visits to their primary care physician to monitor blood pressure and heart health.

Lifestyle changes can also help prevent complications of diabetes mellitus. By quitting smoking, following a proper diabetes food guide, getting regular exercise and controlling weight, a diabetic can live a health life free of complications.

(1) Nutrition MD (2010). Complications of diabetes mellitus: overview and cardiac complications. Retrieved from


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