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 - Northwestern Memorial Hospital - Chicago


Diabetes is a serious disease that should not be ignored—complications from diabetes can be serious and even life-threatening. It is important that you commit to your treatment plan. If you carefully manage your diabetes and adhere to your treatment plan, you can reduce your risk for serious complications.

Managing your diabetes has two benefits:

  • It can help you feel better and reduce or get rid of your symptoms
  • It can prevent any long-term complications

Short-Term Complications of Diabetes

There are some complications of diabetes that must be treated immediately. They can begin with uncomfortable feelings like a headache or hunger, but they can progress to more serious symptoms like seizures or coma. These complications are:

  • High blood sugar (hyperglycemia)—if the blood sugar levels rise too high, serious problems can result. Blood sugar levels can rise for various reasons. Some of them are:

    • Eating too much
    • Illness
    • Not taking any or enough of glucose-lowering medications
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)—Although diabetes is a disease characterized by high blood sugar, diabetics can be at risk for low blood sugar. Low blood sugar can occur for various reasons, including:

    • Taking glucose-lowering medications
    • Receiving insulin therapy
    • Skipping a meal
    • Physical activity/overexertion

People with diabetes should work closely with their doctors to make sure they are on the right dosage of medication or insulin in order to avoid low blood sugar.

Long-Term Complications of Diabetes

Long-term complications of diabetes develop gradually and can cause disability. People with diabetes have a higher risk of complications the longer they have diabetes and the less their diabetes is controlled.

Long-term complications of diabetes can affect almost every bodily system and organ. Some of the most common long-term complications are:

Cardiovascular System

People with diabetes are twice as likely as people without the disease to have a heart attack or stroke. The effects of diabetes dramatically increase the risk of various heart and vascular problems, including:

  • Coronary artery disease

  • Angina (chest pain related to coronary artery disease)

  • Heart attack

  • Stroke

  • Artherosclerosis (buildup of fatty deposits in the arteries, narrowing them and blocking blood flow)

Nerve Damage

One potential effect of having too much sugar in the blood is that the excess sugar can damage the walls of the capillaries (tiny blood vessels) that bring oxygen and other nourishment to the nerves. When the capillaries are damaged, a tingling sensation, numbness, pain or burning can occur in the areas where the nerves were damaged. Most often, diabetes experience nerve damage in their legs and feet, but it can happen in other limbs and areas of the body as well. There are two kinds of nerve damage or neuropathy—peripheral neuropathy and autonomic neuropathy. Too much sugar in the blood can damage the walls.

Nervous System Problems (Neuropathy)

People with diabetes are more susceptible to disease of the nervous system. This is called neuropathy. There are various forms of neuropathy, including:

  • Peripheral neuropathy

  • Autonomic Type I—Autonomic neuropathy can affect your:

    • Digestion
    • Heart rate
    • Blood pressure
    • Bladder and bowel control
    • Sexual function

Kidney Damage (nephropathy)

The main job of the kidneys is to filter waste products from the body. The blood filtering process is done through tiny blood vessel clusters called glomeruli. The effects of diabetes can damage the filtering system. Severe damage can lead to both kidney failure. When the kidneys are damaged to that extent, lifelong dialysis or a kidney transplant is necessary to sustain life.

Eye Damage (retinopathy)

The eye disease that can result from diabetes is called diabetic retinopathy. It is caused by damage to the blood vessels of the retina, and can lead to blindness. All people with diabetes should see an ophthalmologist at least once a year and have a dilated eye exam. Diabetics are also prone to other eye problems, such as cataracts and glaucoma. If you have diabetes and notice any eye symptoms, contact your doctor.

Foot Damage

When a person has high blood sugar for a sustained period of time, blood flow problems and nerve damage can result. This increases the risk of foot complications. Even small cuts and sores can become very serious—if left untreated, the cuts and sores can become infected. Severe damage to the feet can require amputation of the toe, foot or even leg.

Skin Problems & Gum Infections

People with diabetes are more susceptible to bacterial and fungal infection of the skin and gums. Blood glucose control, good hygiene and regular dental care can reduce these risks.


If you would like to schedule an appointment with an endocrinologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, you may call the Physician Referral Service at 1-877-926-4664 or request a first time appointment online. 

Last UpdateAugust 4, 2011


To make an appointment with a physician, please call 1-877-926-4664.

New patients can request an appointment online.