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What are the signs and symptoms of diabetes?

Diabetes often goes undiagnosed because the signs can be confusing. Here’s what you need to know

Australian diabetes rates have more than doubled since 1990. There are now 1.2 million Australians diagnosed with the condition – and because it often goes undiagnosed, health experts say the actual number of cases may be much higher.

The increase in diabetes levels is largely due to rising obesity rates. Two thirds of Australians are now classified as overweight or obese, which is a key risk factor in the development of type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes in children is also increasing, which is also thought to be due to childhood obesity levels, with one in four children now classified as obese.

What is diabetes?

First, it’s important to understand what diabetes is, what causes it and how it affects the body. Diabetes is a health condition where the levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood are too high.

Blood glucose levels are normally regulated by a hormone called insulin, which is made by the pancreas. Diabetes occurs when there is a problem with this hormone and how it works in the body.

There are a number of different forms of diabetes. Two of the most common are:

Type 1 diabetes

One in 10 cases of diabetes in Australia are type 1 diabetes. This condition can occur at any age, but is more common in people under 30. It occurs when the body destroys insulin-making cells in the pancreas, which means insulin is no longer made.

The exact cause of type 1 diabetes is not yet known, but it has no link to lifestyle. It is hereditary and cannot be prevented. There is currently no cure, but it can be successfully managed with insulin injections, nutrition and exercise.

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes and makes up 85 to 90 per cent of all diabetes cases. It usually occurs in adults aged over 40, but is now being more frequently diagnosed in younger people, due to increases in the rates of obesity.

A healthy diet, regular exercise, not smoking and maintaining a healthy weight are key ways to both prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes and manage its symptoms.

Symptoms to look out for

Dr Linda Swan, Medibank Chief Medical Officer, says that diabetes often goes undiagnosed because the symptoms can be mistakenly attributed to other health conditions, or even dismissed as minor concerns that don’t need medical attention.

“The symptoms of diabetes are quite generic and can often be attributed to other health or environmental factors. They include excessive thirst, tiredness, weight change and headaches. As a result, diabetes can go undetected for quite a long time, which can lead to serious health consequences,” Dr Swan says.

“Although there is no known cure for diabetes, it can be managed through diet, exercise and prescribed medications including tablets and insulin injections.”

Diabetes going undiagnosed is a global problem, with the International Diabetes Federation estimating more than 640 million people worldwide have diabetes, but 46 per cent are unaware of their condition.

So what should you be looking out for? Some common symptoms of diabetes can include:

  • Being more thirsty than usual
  • Passing more urine than usual
  • Feeling tired and lethargic
  • Having cuts that heal slowly
  • Itching and skin infections
  • Blurred vision
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Mood swings
  • Headaches
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Leg cramps

Preventing type 2 diabetes

There are things you can do to reduce your type 2 diabetes risk, Dr Swan says. “Although type 1 diabetes is often hereditary, type 2 diabetes is usually a lifestyle disease and can be avoided. A healthy diet, regular exercise and avoiding smoking are key to both preventing the onset of type 2 diabetes and managing its consequences.

“Given the increase in childhood type 2 diabetes, it’s important that children are encouraged to eat healthy foods, get plenty of physical activity and maintain a healthy weight. These simple steps can help avoid a whole host of health problems in the future.”

Read more about preventing and managing diabetes

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