Untreated Diabetes: What to Know

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Some things easily slip off our to-do lists. Whether it’s folding laundry, putting dishes away or scheduling an oil change, tasks that need to happen don’t always get prioritized. But, when it comes to diagnosing and treating type 2 diabetes, waiting isn’t the best option. Vidya Aluri, MD, UnityPoint Health, outlines the effects of untreated diabetes, including symptoms, complications and common misconceptions association with the condition.

Untreated Diabetes Symptoms

Type 2 diabetes is a common condition in the adult population where the body, while producing insulin, doesn’t recognize the insulin adequately. Blood glucose (sugar) levels then rise and can become difficult to control.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), of the 30.3 million Americans with diabetes, 7.2 million remain undiagnosed.

“Undiagnosed or untreated diabetes could exist in individuals who haven’t undergone regular screening for high blood sugars,” Dr. Aluri says. “Sometimes, we have individuals who might have been made aware of borderline diabetes many years ago but have not been able to follow up with a health care professional.”

Dr. Aluri says untreated or undiagnosed type 2 diabetes can go unnoticed for a long time. Mild to moderate blood sugar levels often don’t cause any symptoms. When blood sugars rise significantly, people start to notice symptoms like:

  • Excessive thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Blurry vision
  • Fatigue
  • Repeat skin infections
  • Poor wound healing

Complications of Diabetes

“Diabetes is a condition expected to gradually progress over time. If type 2 diabetes goes untreated, the high blood sugar can affect various cells and organs in the body. Complications include kidney damage, often leading to dialysis, eye damage, which could result in blindness, or an increased risk for heart disease or stroke. Unfortunately, the effects of high blood sugars are not limited to this,” Dr. Aluri says.

Chronic conditions, like neuropathy (nerve damage), gastroparesis (issues with stomach emptying) can also develop. Diabetes mellitus, Dr. Aluri says, could kill someone if not diagnosed and managed properly. Extremely high blood glucose can even lead to coma (hyperosmolar hyperglycemic non-ketotic state).

Myths About Type 2 Diabetes

While we often think of type 2 diabetes as a condition in older adults, Dr. Aluri says it’s increasing in the younger population, due to shifts in diet, activity levels and higher rates of obesity.

“There’s no cure for type 2 diabetes, but it can be controlled. Anger, disbelief or fear of lifestyle changes are quite common. Receiving a type 2 diabetes diagnosis could lead to a state of denial in some, who might not seek care or treatment,” Dr. Aluri says.

Dr. Aluri also says many misconceptions exist about diabetes management, too. Diabetes “myths” she hears most often include:

  • If I ate too much sugar in my younger days, that will lead to type 2 diabetes. Fact: Eating too much sugar in and of itself might not cause diabetes, particularly in early adulthood. But, eating excessive calories and sugar can lead to an increase in weight that can result in insulin resistance, which could then result in diabetes.
  • If I have diabetes, I can no longer eat most foods. Fact: A diet for someone with diabetes is about healthy eating in moderation. Someone with diabetes can still enjoy bread, pasta and dessert. The difference is about frequency and quantity, as well as factoring in the rest of food intake.
  • Type 2 diabetes means I’ll have to take insulin, and I’ve failed in taking care of this condition. Fact: Type 2 diabetes is a progressive condition, and many people end up needing insulin over time to keep their blood sugars in a healthy range. But, it’s important to note it’s very much possible to delay the progression of diabetes with oral medications and lifestyle changes, especially if diagnosed early enough.

“Individuals diagnosed at an early stage with type 2 diabetes (known as prediabetes) often see resolution of elevated blood sugars with diet and weight loss. We can also prescribe oral medications to keep blood sugars in a healthy range. There are various injectable medications as well, not just insulin, which work on hormones tied to insulin secretion and appetite. We work with people with diabetes as a team, including the physician, diabetes educators and nutritionists – all with the patient at the center,” Dr. Aluri says.

Type 2 Diabetes Prevention

While type 2 diabetes can’t be cured, prevention is possible. Dr. Aluri suggests focusing on small ways to keep the condition from progressing:

  • Practice healthy eating and regular physical activity
  • Monitor gradual weight gain, and discuss ways to counter it with your provider
  • Work together as a family on living a healthy lifestyle
  • Talk to your provider, if you have concerning symptoms

The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends adults who are overweight between the ages of 40-70 be screened for type 2 diabetes. Your provider can help determine if this is right for you.

“I strongly encourage adults with type 2 diabetes find a support system, as it’s the biggest source of strength they’ll find on this journey. If any information is difficult to process, never hesitate to ask your provider,” Dr. Aluri says.