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What Diabetes Is

Chapter 1 of 6

Diabetes means your blood glucose, also called blood sugar, is too high. Your blood always has some glucose in it because your body needs glucose for energy to keep you going. But too much glucose in the blood isn't good for your health.

How do you get high blood glucose?

Glucose comes from the food you eat and is also made in your liver and muscles. Your blood carries the glucose to all the cells in your body. Insulin is a chemical, also called a hormone, made by the pancreas. The pancreas releases insulin into the blood. Insulin helps the glucose from food get into your cells. If your body doesn't make enough insulin, or if the insulin doesn't work the way it should, glucose can't get into your cells. It stays in your blood instead. Your blood glucose level then gets too high, causing prediabetes or diabetes.

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What is prediabetes?

Prediabetes is a condition in which blood glucose levels are higher than normal but not high enough for a diagnosis of diabetes. People with prediabetes are at increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes and for heart disease and stroke. The good news is, if you have prediabetes, you can reduce your risk of getting diabetes. With modest weight loss and moderate physical activity, you can delay or prevent type 2 diabetes and even return to normal glucose levels.

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What are the signs of diabetes?

The signs of diabetes are

  • being very thirsty
  • urinating often
  • feeling very hungry or tired
  • losing weight without trying
  • having sores that heal slowly
  • having dry, itchy skin
  • losing the feeling in your feet or having tingling in your feet
  • having blurry eyesight

You may have had one or more of these signs before you found out you had diabetes. Or you may have had no signs at all. A blood test to check your glucose levels will show if you have prediabetes or diabetes.

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What kind of diabetes do you have?

People can get diabetes at any age. Type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes are the three main kinds. Type 1 diabetes, formerly called juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes, is usually first diagnosed in children, teenagers, or young adults. With this form of diabetes, the beta cells of the pancreas no longer make insulin because the body's immune system has attacked and destroyed them. Treatment for type 1 diabetes includes taking insulin and possibly another injectable medicine, making wise food choices, being physically active, taking aspirin daily—for some—and controlling blood pressure and cholesterol.

Type 2 diabetes, formerly called adult-onset diabetes or noninsulin-dependent diabetes, is the most common form of diabetes. People can develop type 2 diabetes at any age—even during childhood. This form of diabetes usually begins with insulin resistance, a condition in which fat, muscle, and liver cells do not use insulin properly. At first, the pancreas keeps up with the added demand by producing more insulin. In time, however, it loses the ability to secrete enough insulin in response to meals. Being overweight and inactive increases the chances of developing type 2 diabetes. Treatment includes using diabetes medicines, making wise food choices, being physically active, taking aspirin daily—for some—and controlling blood pressure and cholesterol.

Some women develop gestational diabetes during the late stages of pregnancy. Although this form of diabetes usually goes away after the baby is born, a woman who has had it is more likely to develop type 2 diabetes later in life. Gestational diabetes is caused by the hormones of pregnancy or a shortage of insulin.

The National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse offers a free booklet called What I need to know about Gestational Diabetes. Read it online at www.diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/gestational or call 1–800–860–8747 to request a printed copy.

This booklet is for people who have either type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes.

  • If you use insulin, look at the white boxes like this one for "Action Steps."

    Action Steps
    If You Use Insulin


     

  • If you don't use insulin, look at the blue boxes like this one for "Action Steps."

    Action Steps
    If You Don't Use Insulin


     

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Why do you need to take care of your diabetes?

After many years, diabetes can lead to serious problems with your eyes, kidneys, nerves, and gums and teeth. But the most serious problem caused by diabetes is heart disease. When you have diabetes, you are more than twice as likely as people without diabetes to have heart disease or a stroke.

If you have diabetes, your risk of a heart attack is the same as someone who has already had a heart attack. Both women and men with diabetes are at risk. You may not even have the typical signs of a heart attack.

You can reduce your risk of developing heart disease by controlling your blood pressure and blood fat levels. If you smoke, talk with your doctor about quitting. Remember that every step toward your goals helps!

See "Why Taking Care of Your Diabetes Is Important" to learn how you can try to prevent or delay long-term problems. The best way to take care of your health is to work with your health care team to keep your blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol in your target range.

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What's a desirable blood glucose level?

Everyone's blood has some glucose in it. In people who don't have diabetes, the normal range is about 70 to 120. Blood glucose goes up after eating but 1 or 2 hours later returns to the normal range.

Ask your health care team when you should check your blood glucose with a meter. Talk about whether the blood glucose targets listed below are best for you. Then write in your own targets.

Blood Glucose Targets for Most People with Diabetes

When Target levels My target levels
Before meals 70 to 130 ______ to _____
1 to 2 hours after the start of a meal below 180 below ______

Printer-friendly version of Blood Glucose Targets table

It may be hard to reach your target range all of the time. But the closer you get to your goal, the more you will reduce your risk of diabetes-related problems and the better you will feel. Every step helps.

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Page last updated August 8, 2013


The National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse is a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health.

National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse
1 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892–3560
Phone: 1–800–860–8747
TTY: 1–866–569–1162
Fax: 703–738–4929
Email: ndic@info.niddk.nih.gov
Internet: www.diabetes.niddk.nih.gov

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