Diabetes mellitus (known in Kiswahili as ‘ugonjwa wa sukari’), is one of the most common medical conditions worldwide. Unfortunately, most people do not recognise the symptoms of diabetes and often present to the hospital with complications of the disease.
If not diagnosed early and managed appropriately, diabetes can be a vicious disease. It has been known to significantly increase the risk of heart attacks, stroke, kidney failure and disability (vision loss and amputation due to foot infections). It is, therefore, important that we recognise the signs and symptoms of diabetes early and start on treatment in good time.
Common symptoms of diabetes
Since the body is not utilising its energy (sugar) supplies properly, people with diabetes tend to notice that they are consistently tired. This is often brushed off as being work related but in most cases, the fatigue persists even after one has slept.
Since the body is not efficient is using the fuel it has, one may notice that they are constantly hungry. Sometimes the hunger pangs may become so severe that one literally ‘shakes with hunger’. This often leads to snacking on starchy treats (like mandazi or cookies) as it quickly relieves the hunger. However, the hunger quickly returns once the sugar levels dip again.
Most diabetics tend to drink more aggressively than people with normal blood sugar levels. Their bodies are constantly thirsty. If you are constantly thirsty (regardless of the weather or physical activity), you may be a diabetic.
Urinating at night
The high level of glucose (sugar) in the blood leads to high glucose quantities in the urine resulting in increased urination. Most people do not think much of the increased bathroom breaks and often attribute it to the fact that they are drinking a little more than usual. A red flag to look out for is waking up more than once a night to go pee.
Unexplained weight loss
Despite the increased frequency of feeds seen in diabetics, most report that it does not translate into weight gain. In fact, quite the opposite. The body does not efficiently utilise the food it ingests and the result is weight loss. This usually reverses once one starts on diabetes treatment.
Vaginal thrush and UTIs
Recurrent infections are a common complaint among diabetics. Among women, urinary tract infections (UTIs) and vaginal thrush tend to occur more often than the general population. Vaginal thrush is characterised by a whitish discharge with associated itching of the genitals. UTIs often cause painful, frequent urination. The pain is characteristically described as burning in nature. The high sugar content of the urine and poor immunity is thought to contribute to the increased frequency of UTIs.
Most diabetics develop a characteristic dark colour in the folds of their skin — especially in the armpit, groin, neck and below the breast. Some also report dry, itchy skin. The area around the eyes may develop light brown or yellow scaly patches.
Diabetes can cause damage to the vessels supplying the penis. This results in poor erectile function. Most men will report that their erections no longer last as long as they used to or they do not always get an erection when they want one. Libido (sex drive) in both genders may also go down.
Diabetes can affect the eyes in a myriad of ways. It can cause the lens of the eye to swell up, or become cloudy (cataracts). In some cases, it can destroy the vision processing part of the eye (known as the retina) causing permanent damage. Early lens changes such as swelling are not permanent and can be reversed with treatment of the diabetes. Cataracts often need surgery. A characteristic feature of diabetes-related eye damage is that most people with the disease will report that their vision is not improving despite the use of corrective lenses (glasses).
Mood swings and concentration issues
Swinging blood sugar levels can have negative effects on various centres of the brain. This can result in changes in mood and poor concentration/memory.
Your wounds take too long to heal
Most diabetics have weakened immune systems. This means that when they get an injury/cut/laceration, the wound repair component of their immune system does not work as efficiently as it should resulting in slow healing.
Your hands and feet tingle or get numb
Diabetes can cause nerve damage in the hands and feet. Most diabetics will complain of either numbness, burning sensations or tingling in the hands and feet.
Who is at greatest risk of developing diabetes?
• People with a family history of diabetes. • Women who have had gestational diabetes (diabetes in pregnancy). • Overweight people — especially those whose weight is mainly distributed around their belly. • Sedentary lifestyle — this goes hand in hand with being overweight. • People of African and Hispanic origin have a greater risk of developing diabetes than other races. • Women with polycystic ovarian syndrome.
What to do
If you have noted several of these symptoms, visit your doctor and get checked for blood sugar levels in addition to a full physical examination.