Diabetes has plenty of early signs, but they're subtle enough that you might not notice.
"It's not like you wake up one day and all of a sudden you're thirsty, hungry, and [going to the bathroom] all the time," says Melissa Joy Dobbins, RD, a certified diabetes educator in Illinois and a spokesperson for the American Association of Diabetes Educators. "It picks up gradually." Indeed, "most people are unaware that they have diabetes in its early or even middle phases," says Aaron Cypess, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and staff physician at Joslin Diabetes Center. Just because you're not keyed in doesn't mean you're immune from problems associated with diabetes, he adds. The longer you go without controlling diabetes, the greater your risk for heart disease, kidney disease, amputation, blindness, and other serious complications. "We recommend that people with risk factors for diabetes, such as a family history or being overweight, get evaluated on a regular basis," Dr. Cypess says.
If you've been feeling off, talk to your doctor about getting a simple blood test that can diagnose the disease. And pay attention to these subtle diabetes signs and symptoms.
You're taking more bathroom breaks
When you have diabetes, your body becomes less efficient at breaking food down into sugar, so you have more sugar sitting in your bloodstream, says Dobbins. "Your body gets rid of it by flushing it out in the urine. That's why you're going to the bathroom a lot." Most patients aren't necessarily aware of how often they use the bathroom, says Dr. Cypess. "When we ask about it, we often hear, 'Oh yeah, I guess I’m going more often than I used to,'" he says. But one red flag is whether the need to urinate keeps you up at night. Once or twice might be normal, but if it's affecting your ability to sleep, that could be a symptom to pay attention to.
You're thirstier than usual
Urinating a lot will also make you feel parched. A common symptom Dobbins sees with patients is that they use drinks like juices, soda, or chocolate milk to quench their thirst. These sugary beverages then pack the bloodstream with excess sugar, which can lead to the problem all over again.
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You've lost a little weight
Considering that being overweight is a risk factor for diabetes, it sounds counterintuitive that shedding pounds could be a sign of the disease. "Weight loss comes from two things," says Dr. Cypess. "One, from the water that you lose [from urinating]. Two, you lose some calories in the urine and you don’t absorb all the calories from the sugar in your blood." Once people learn they have diabetes and start controlling their blood sugar, they may even experience some weight gain—but "that's a good thing," says Dr. Cypess, because it means your blood sugar levels are more balanced.
You feel shaky and hungry
It's not uncommon for patients to suddenly feel unsteady and immediately need to reach for carbs, says Marjorie Cypress, a nurse practitioner at an endocrinology clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and 2014 president of health care and education for the American Diabetes Association. "When you have high blood sugar, your body has a problem regulating its glucose," she explains. "If you've eaten something high in carbohydrates, your body shoots out a little too much insulin, and your glucose drops quickly. This makes you feel shaky, and you tend to crave carbs or sugar. This can lead to a vicious cycle."
You're tired all the time
Of course you're exhausted every now and then. But ongoing fatigue is an important symptom to pay attention to; it might mean the food you're eating for energy isn't being broken down and used by cells as it's supposed to. "You're not getting the fuel your body needs," says Dobbins. "You're going to be tired and feel sluggish." But in many cases of type 2 diabetes, your sugar levels can be elevated for awhile, so these symptoms could come on slowly.
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You're moody and grumpy
When your blood sugar is out of whack, you just don't feel well, says Cypress, and might become more short-tempered. In fact, high blood sugar can mimic depression-like symptoms. "You feel very tired, you don't feel like doing anything, you don't want to go out, you just want to sleep," Cypress says. She'll see patients who think they need to be treated for depression, but then experience mood improvement after their blood sugar normalizes.
Your vision seems blurry
Don't be alarmed: This is not diabetic retinopathy, where the blood vessels in the back of the eye are getting destroyed, says Dr. Cypess. In the early stages of diabetes, the eye lens is not focusing well because glucose builds up in the eye, which temporarily changes its shape. "You're not going blind from diabetes," Dr. Cypess says he assures patients. "In about six to eight weeks after your blood sugars are stabilized, you’re not going to feel it anymore; the eye will adjust."
Your cuts and scrapes heal more slowly
The immune system and the processes that help the body heal don't work so well when your sugar levels are high, explains Dr. Cypess.
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Your feet tingle
Elevated sugar levels can cause complications well before you realize you have diabetes. One of these is mild nerve damage, which can cause numbness in your feet, says Cypress.
You're more prone to urinary tract and yeast infections
Higher levels of sugar in urine and the vagina can become a breeding ground for the bacteria and yeast that cause these infections. Recurrent infections are particularly worrisome. "Usually when you keep getting infections, doctors will check for diabetes if you don't already have it," says Cypress. "Even women who go to the emergency room for urinary tract infections are often checked."