7 Surprising Signs You Might Have Diabetes
While 4.9 million Hispanic adults in the United States have been diagnosed with diabetes, experts estimate another 1.5 million have diabetes and don’t even know it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Part of the problem: Type 2 symptoms can develop over several years. “Symptoms may be subtle at first, but they tend to progress and worsen over time,” says Nicolas Cuttriss, M.D., director of Project ECHO Diabetes Clinic at Stanford University in Stanford, CA.
Extreme thirst and frequent urination are among the most overt common signs that you could have diabetes; let’s look at some of the lesser-known symptoms.
Due to genetic and environmental risk factors, Hispanic adults in the U.S. have a 50% chance of developing type 2 diabetes, according to the CDC. And worth repeating is the message that you can have diabetes and have no symptoms.
“Think about how many people are in your family,” says Diana Naranjo, Ph.D., a clinical professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Based in in Palo Alto, CA, Dr. Naranjo works with families and patients with diabetes. “If half are likely to develop type 2 diabetes, it means everyone should be getting routinely screened.”
Your body converts food into glucose for energy. Diabetes interferes with this process, resulting in fatigue. So if you’re constantly or deeply exhausted, your healthcare provider will want to know.
However, it’s not uncommon for Hispanic/LatinX patients to feel reluctant to bring up symptoms without being directly asked. “There’s a cultural concept of ‘respeto,’ meaning respect for medical professionals. And because of that, often a Latino patient won’t disagree with the doctor,” says Naranjo. But doctors really do appreciate having as much information as possible.
Sores That Heal Slowly
A slow-healing sore or wound could be a sign of diabetes, and if you have diabetes, the sore is more likely to get infected. Even if the injury is not due to diabetes, a chronic wound can lead to serious complications. Consult your healthcare provider if a sore or wound does any of the following:
- Starts small and scabs over again and again, but doesn’t get better
- Lingers for weeks
- Shows signs of infection, including redness, warmth, tenderness, or pus draining
Once again, high blood sugar is to blame. The extra glucose produced by diabetes inhibits blood flow, interfering with your body's natural healing process.
Unintentional Weight Loss
If you lose weight and feel hungry all the time—even though you’re eating a lot—contact your provider immediately. These could be symptoms of more advanced diabetes.
Monitoring your weight over time is another reason to see your healthcare provider regularly. Hispanic Americans have higher rates of obesity, which is an additional risk factor for diabetes, and tend to be less physically active than non-Hispanic white Americans. Lowering your body mass index (BMI) by any amount helps reduce your diabetes risk.
“Even marginal changes in exercise and diet can go a long way,” says Naranjo.
Red, Swollen, Tender Gums
People with diabetes are more likely to have gum disease. Symptoms include red, swollen, and tender gums. When glucose levels rise because of diabetes, the level of sugar in your saliva increases. The sugar feeds bacteria in your mouth. Food combines with the bacteria and food to form plaque, a sticky film that can cause gum disease, tooth decay, and bad breath.
In turn, gum disease causes inflammation, which also increases glucose levels, making it harder to manage diabetes. The good news is that treating gum disease can actually lower glucose levels over time.
Dark, Velvety Skin in Body Folds
Dark, thick, velvety skin in body folds, usually on the neck, armpits, or groin can be a sign of diabetes, says Sylvia Rosas, M.D., a staff physician at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, MA, and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School.
The condition, called acanthosis nigricans, typically occurs in people who have diabetes or are obese. Children with the condition are at a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to Mayo Clinic.
While diabetes can occur at any age, newly diagnosed cases of type 2 diabetes among children and teens continue to rise, according to the CDC. Hispanic/Latinx are among the groups with the steepest increases.
Diabetes is the leading cause of vision loss in people age 18 to 64, but an annual eye exam could prevent 95% of vision loss caused by diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. If your vision blurs, seek immediate medical attention. It could be a symptom of diabetes or something more serious.
The extra glucose produced by diabetes pulls fluid from the eyes making the lenses swell. Over time, this damages the tiny blood vessels in the retina. This can cause vision changes or produce no obvious symptoms. An eye doctor can see this damage during a dilated eye exam—even before you experience other diabetes symptoms.
More Infections Than Usual
Diabetes weakens the body’s immune system, making people with diabetes more susceptible to infections. This happens partly because high glucose levels create a friendlier environment for bacteria to grow, and allow infections to develop more quickly and linger longer.
According to the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC), the most common infections in people with diabetes are:
- Ear, nose, and throat infections (including fungal infections)
- Urinary tract infections (UTIs)
- Skin and soft tissue infections
According to APIC, uncontrolled diabetes is one of the major causes for UTIs. Kidney infections and inflammation of the bladder are also common problems in people with diabetes.
Take a Personal Risk Test
“Symptoms develop over time and may vary by person,” says Dr. Rosas. “The important message is that you need to see your healthcare provider, and you need to be screened if you are at risk.”
The bottom line is that Hispanic/Latinx Americans have genetic and environmental risk factors for diabetes and prediabetes, a precursor to diabetes that usually has no symptoms. If you have prediabetes, you’re at a higher risk for getting Type 2 diabetes.
To get more details about your personal risk, take the CDC’s 1-minute prediabetes risk test (available in Spanish and English). Then talk to a trusted provider about your results and next steps.
Diabetes Symptoms: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). “Diabetes Symptoms.” cdc.gov/diabetes/basics/symptoms.html
Type 1 Diabetes: American Diabetes Association. (Undated). “Type 1 Overview: Diabetes Symptoms.” diabetes.org/diabetes/type-1/symptoms
Type 2 Diabetes: American Diabetes Association. (Undated). “Type 2 Overview: Diabetes Symptoms.” diabetes.org/diabetes/type-2/symptoms
2020 Stats: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020). “2020 National Diabetes Statistics Report.” cdc.gov/diabetes/pdfs/data/statistics/national-diabetes-statistics-report.pdf
LatinX and Type 2 Diabetes: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019). “Hispanic/Latino Americans and Type 2 Diabetes.” cdc.gov/diabetes/library/features/hispanic-diabetes.html
Diabetes and Gum Issues: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (2014). “Diabetes, Gum Disease, & Other Dental Problems.” niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-problems/gum-disease-dental-problems
Diabetes and Eye Health: American Diabetes Association. (2020). Public Health Initiative: “Focus on Diabetes.” eyehealth.diabetes.org
Diabetes and Darkening of Skin: Mayo Clinic. (2020). “Acanthosis nigricans.” mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/acanthosis-nigricans/symptoms-causes/syc-20368983
Wounds and Diabetes: Cleveland Clinic. (2020). “Why You Shouldn’t Ignore a Wound that Won’t Heal.” health.clevelandclinic.org/why-you-shouldnt-ignore-a-wound-that-wont-heal/
Infections and Diabetes: Association for Professionals in Infectious Control and Epidemiology. (Undated). “Diabetes, Infections, and You.” apic.org/monthly_alerts/diabetes-infections-and-you/