Diabetes is a serious and growing problem in the United States. More than 30 million Americans—more than 9 percent of the population—have diabetes, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). What’s more, more than 84 million U.S. residents have prediabetes, a condition that can lead to diabetes within a few years if you don't make certain healthy lifestyle changes. Because prediabetes has no symptoms for most people, it can go undetected unless you have regular blood tests as part of an annual checkup with your doctor. Not until it progresses to diabetes are you likely to notice signs.
The difference between prediabetes and diabetes
With prediabetes, your blood sugar (glucose) level is higher than normal, but not high enough to be classified as diabetes. To measure the amount of sugar in your blood, a blood test is usually done after you’ve fasted overnight. Here’s what key blood sugar levels indicate, according to the CDC:
- 99 mg/dL or lower: normal blood sugar
- 100 to 125 mg/dL: prediabetes
- 126 mg/dL or higher: diabetes
At every stage, important lifestyle changes can help keep the condition from progressing. For instance, by following a healthy diet, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight (losing excess weight if necessary) if you have prediabetes, it’s possible to lower your blood sugar level and reduce your chances of developing diabetes in the future, according to the Mayo Clinic. These steps may also be able to reverse diabetes in the very early stages, but even if you need to take medication, these actions are essential to keep you as healthy as possible and avoid serious complications associated with diabetes, from heart and kidney disease to nerve damage.
Because prediabetes generally has no symptoms, yearly blood tests to check your blood sugar level are essential to protect your health. It's equally important, though, to be aware of the early warning signs of diabetes. This will help you know when to see your doctor — and don’t hesitate to make an appointment if you notice any of them. Diabetes symptoms don’t go away on their own. To the contrary, they will worsen and lead to complications if not treated.
Early warning signs of diabetes include:
1. More frequent urination
When your blood sugar is higher than normal, your body responds in various ways to rid your blood of that extra sugar. Most of the work falls on your kidneys. When they can’t absorb the sugar, they send it out of your body through urine, often in larger than normal amounts. Making extra urine can lead to dehydration and its own set of signs, like a dry mouth and itchy skin. Any combination of these symptoms may be an early indicator of diabetes.
2. Increased thirst
This sign goes hand-in-hand with all those trips to the bathroom. If you find yourself reaching for water or other liquids more often — and not because you’ve been working out at a high level — this excessive thirst could be a response to dehydration from all the extra urination that diabetes is causing. Expect that to ramp up the cycle of more frequent urination and more frequent drinking, according to the Mayo Clinic.
3. Feeling tired
Everyone feels sleepy from time to time. However, if you feel tired much of the time, especially if it interferes with your daily activities, this may be an early sign of diabetes. Often this is due to high sugar levels keeping your body from efficiently using the glucose for energy, explains the Mayo Clinic. Compounding the problem can be waking up to urinate at night, which can disrupt your sleep. If you feel like you're more fatigued than you used to be, it's worth mentioning to your doctor.
4. Unintentional weight loss
Diabetes, particularly type 2 diabetes, is frequently associated with obesity, so it might sound surprising to hear that weight loss can be an early warning sign of the illness. But when your body is not using blood sugar for energy like it should, this not only leads directly to high blood sugar, but it also means that your body turns to stored fat for the energy it needs. As your body burns this fat for energy, unexpected weight loss often results.
5. Slow healing
A high blood sugar level negatively affects blood flow, which can lead to other health issues as diabetes progresses, such as nerve damage. Earlier signs though, are sores, cuts or other wounds that heal more slowly than normal. If you have a skin wound that seems to be lingering for longer than you’d expect, it could be an early sign of diabetes.
Having high blood sugar means that your kidneys can’t filter all the glucose out of your blood. As a result, some of that sugar ends up in your urine, where it can lead to urinary tract infections (UTIs). UTIs are more common in women, but men can get them, too. High blood sugar levels also put women at greater risk for yeast infections, making this another possible early diabetes sign, according to the CDC.
7. Vision changes
According to the Mayo Clinic, when your kidneys make more urine, fluids are drawn from tissues throughout your body, including the lenses in your eyes. This can give you blurry vision. Your vision can be affected in other, more serious ways as diabetes progresses, so don’t delay having your eyes checked.
8. Skin problems
As your body’s insulin resistance increases, a condition called acanthosis nigricans can sometimes develop. Be on the lookout for areas of skin that look darker than other skin in those areas of your body. You may notice signs of acanthosis nigricans on your knuckles or in the folds of your neck.
9. Fruity breath
If your body uses fat instead of glucose for energy, this creates by-product substances called ketones. When you have ketones in your blood, your breath can smell sweet or fruity, according to an international diabetes research foundation known as JDRF.
- CDC, Diabetes Basics. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/basics/index.html
- Mayo Clinic, Prediabetes. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/prediabetes/symptoms-causes/syc-20355278
- Cleveland Clinic, Is Diabetes Sneaking Up on You? 6 Early Signs https://health.clevelandclinic.org/is-diabetes-sneaking-up-on-you-6-early-signs/
- JDFR, Early Symptoms of Diabetes. https://www.jdrf.org/t1d-resources/about/symptoms/
- CDC, Type 1 Diabetes, Type 2 Diabetes and Prediabetes. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/basics/getting-tested.html
- CDC, Diabetes: Prevent Complications. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/managing/problems.html
- American Academy of Dermatology, 12 Warning Signs of Diabetes that Appear on Your Skin. https://www.aad.org/diseases/a-z/diabetes-warning-signs
- Mayo Clinic, Diabetes Symptoms: When Diabetes Symptoms Are a Concern. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diabetes/in-depth/diabetes-symptoms/art-20044248
- CDC, Diabetes and Women. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/library/features/diabetes-and-women.html