If your diabetes goes untreated, you could experience serious complications as a result. These problems could be sudden, emergency effects of diabetes on your body, or long-term complications affecting your eyes, heart, kidneys, nerves and other parts of your body.
"Untreated diabetes can cause damage from your head down to your toes," says Mary Vouyiouklis Kellis, MD, an endocrinology specialist in the Department of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism at the Cleveland Clinic. "The main cause of this damage is due to damaged blood vessels from high blood sugar."
Symptoms of Untreated Diabetes
Diabetes is a disease that develops because your blood sugar levels are too high, called hyperglycemia, explains the Mayo Clinic. Symptoms, however, usually do not appear unless blood sugar is high for several days or weeks. The first signs of high blood sugar may be frequent urination, thirst, fatigue, headache and blurred vision. If hyperglycemia continues to be untreated, a condition called diabetic ketoacidosis may develop.
"Ketoacidosis is a severe complication of diabetes that occurs when diabetes has interfered with your ability to use sugar for energy," Dr. Kellis says. "In the process of using fat, toxic acids called ketones are released that cause the symptoms of ketoacidosis."
Those symptoms may include:
- Fruity breath.
- Dry mouth.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Belly pain.
As Mayo Clinic explains, diabetic ketoacidosis occurs because you don't have enough insulin in your body to move sugar from your blood into your cells. Untreated ketoacidosis can be a life-threatening complication.
Though diabetes does not cause symptoms unless your blood sugar gets above 180 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), a very high level — above 600 mg/dL — can bring on a complication called hyperglycemic hyperosmolar state.
This condition causes glucose to spill into your urine and also sparks very frequent urination. Loss of fluid can lead to severe dehydration and coma, says the Mayo Clinic.
The Diabetes Teaching Center at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) says that long-term complications of diabetes may take years to show up but can include:
- Loss of vision or vision problems.
- Damage to kidneys or failure of kidneys.
- Nerve damage and nerve pain.
- Damage to blood vessels and the heart.
The International Diabetes Federation (IDF) adds that:
- Heart and blood vessel disease is the leading cause of death for people with diabetes.
- Diabetes is a leading cause of blindness in people of working age.
- Nerve damage from diabetes is a leading cause of lower limb amputation.
- Diabetes, along with hypertension, causes most cases of end-stage kidney disease world-wide.
"Diabetes can also cause general fatigue, lack of energy and a weakened body defense system that increases your risk for infection and delays healing," Dr. Kellis says.
How to Prevent Complications
If you've already been diagnosed with diabetes, the best way to prevent complications is to follow a treatment plan that gives you tight control of your blood sugar and also controls your cholesterol levels. This should include lifestyle changes like not smoking, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight, UCSF notes.
If you have not been diagnosed with diabetes, you may be able to avoid the dangers of untreated diabetes by being screened with a blood test for prediabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Prediabetes is a condition in which your blood sugar is higher than normal but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes.
The CDC urges people to ask their doctors about a blood test for prediabetes. If you have prediabetes, starting healthy lifestyle changes can delay or prevent diabetes. The most important changes involve exercise and weight loss if you're overweight. A healthy diet and stress reduction are also part of the plan. The CDC says you may be at risk for prediabetes if you:
- Are overweight.
- Are older than 44.
- Have a family history of diabetes.
- Do not get enough exercise.
Is This an Emergency?
- Mayo Clinic: “Hyperglycemia in Diabetes”
- Mary Vouyiouklis Kellis, MD, endocrinologist, Department of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, Cleveland Clinic
- University of California, San Francisco: “Living With Diabetes: Complications"
- International Diabetes Federation: “Diabetes Complications”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Prediabetes: Your Chance to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes”