The hidden symptoms of diabetes (that half a million adults may have missed)
We’ve never been more aware of our health. It’s become second nature to monitor every cough and splutter, and to track our temperatures with immaculate precision. But when it comes to diabetes, our vigilance might be failing. A new study by the University of Exeter found that half a million adults may have type 2 diabetes without realising. The researchers analysed blood samples from 200,000 Britons aged between 40 and 70. They found that 2,000 of them had very high blood sugar levels, indicating they had diabetes, but had not yet been diagnosed with the condition. According to figures released in 2019 by charity Diabetes UK, 3.8 million people in the UK have diabetes, and 90 per cent of those cases are type 2. “Type 2 diabetes can be present for many years without symptoms,” says Angus Jones, Associate Professor at the University of Exeter medical school and one of the authors of the study. “The worry about diabetes not being diagnosed for a long time is that people could have significant damage to their body caused by high-glucose.” This includes damage to the nervous system, damage to the retina of the eyes, heart disease, and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels) to name a few. As winter approaches and the threat of a second wave looms large, this makes for sombre reading. It’s thought that people with diabetes face a higher risk of Covid-19 complications, due to the fact their fluctuating or elevated glucose levels leave them with lowered immunity. This also means they have less protection against getting ill in the first place. The hidden symptoms So how do we know if we have type 2 diabetes? Often the symptoms can be “mild and vague”, says Prof Jones – hence why they remain hidden. Two of the most well-known symptoms to look out for are polydipsia and polyuria; in simpler terms, feeling thirsty all the time and needing to go to the bathroom more often. Often, these symptoms become a “vicious cycle”, says Dan Howarth, head of care at Diabetes UK. “You need the toilet more because the amount of sugar in your blood is too high; it’s not being used for anything, so it’s a waste product. Your kidneys switch on the renal threshold to help get more water out. As a result, you become dehydrated”. This is why thrush is a common, but often mistaken, sign of diabetes. “You’re weeing out a lot of sugar, so the urine becomes the perfect breeding ground for the bacteria that causes thrush,” says Howarth. Other symptoms that often go mistaken are fatigue and increased hunger. You feel tired because the muscles aren’t getting enough glucose, and hungry as the body tries to increase its uptake of sugar. Often, people with undiagnosed diabetes find that cuts take longer to heal, too. This is because the high levels of sugar in their blood make it “thick and sticky”, preventing the white blood cells from passing through to heal the wound, says Haworth.