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How do you know if you have diabetes?

7 minute read
A woman working out outside with hand weights.

An astonishing 1.8 million Australians are living with diabetes – a chronic and complex condition caused by relative or absolute deficiency of the hormone insulin.

In Australia, one person develops diabetes every five minutes – that’s 280 new people with diabetes each day – and those numbers are on the rise.

But how do you know if you have diabetes? Are there any diabetes warning signs to look out for? And are you at risk?

What is diabetes?

When our bodies are functioning as they should, insulin regulates our blood sugar levels, ensuring they don’t get too high. However, in people with diabetes, there’s a problem with insulin, meaning blood sugar levels rise too high. That can lead to health complications such as kidney damage, eye damage, nerve damage (especially in the feet), heart disease, stroke and circulation problems, sexual difficulties, depression, anxiety and limb amputations.

“That’s why early diagnosis is important,” shares nib group medical advisor Dr Hamish Black. “The earlier the diagnosis, the better, because in the case of type 2 diabetes, something in your lifestyle has probably caused it – and if we can correct that problem, your diabetes can be managed. You really want to get control of the diabetes before complications occur.”

What are the different types of diabetes?

There are three main types of diabetes: type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes. In people with type 1 diabetes, the pancreas can’t create insulin; while with type 2 diabetes, one or more of these scenarios may be at play:

  • the body doesn’t respond properly to the insulin being produced
  • the insulin doesn’t work as it should
  • the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin.

Type 2 is the most common form, accounting for 85% of all diabetes (type 1 accounts for around 10%). Gestational diabetes can occur in expectant mums and generally goes away after the baby is born. There are rarely warning signs of gestational diabetes, which is why all pregnant women are screened for it.

There’s also a condition called prediabetes, in which blood glucose levels are higher than normal, but not at type 2 diabetes level. However, if you have this condition, you are 10 to 20 times more likely to go on to develop type 2 diabetes and should be on the lookout for diabetes warning signs.

Related: 9 doctor-approved ways to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes

A woman with diabetes testing her blood glucose levels.

What are the warning signs of diabetes?

The main early signs of diabetes are the side effects of high sugars, shares Hamish.

“Probably the first things people would notice are that you’re urinating more often and you’re thirstier or drinking more than you used to.”

Other signs you have diabetes may include:

  • Feeling tired or lethargic
  • Constantly feeling hungry
  • Unexplained weight loss (type 1 diabetes)
  • Gradual weight gain (type 2 diabetes)
  • Cuts that are slow to heal
  • Itching or skin infections
  • Blurred vision
  • Mood swings
  • Dizziness
  • Leg cramps

How to know if you have diabetes

If you’re experiencing some or all of the above signs, your GP should be your first port of call.

“We do what’s called a glycated haemoglobin test, which gives an indication of your blood glucose over the past three months,” explains Hamish. “There’s a range that is diagnostic of diabetes, and there’s a range that’s considered normal – and then there’s something in between, which is a prediabetic range.”

If you’re prediabetic, your doctor will do an oral glucose tolerance test. If that’s positive, you’re diabetic, says Hamish.

“But if it’s negative, you need to monitor the situation to make sure that, if the diagnosis of diabetes comes around, it’s caught early before any damage starts to happen.”

Managing diabetes

While type 1 diabetes is largely managed with insulin-replacement injections or an insulin pump (along with a healthy lifestyle), making lifestyle changes is usually the first step towards managing type 2 diabetes and prediabetes.

Eating a healthy, nutritious diet, maintaining a healthy weight, being more physically active and spending less time sitting can all help keep your blood glucose levels in a normal range, make the insulin work more efficiently, reduce your blood pressure and lower the risk of heart disease.

However, where lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise aren’t enough, your doctor may prescribe medication to help control your blood glucose levels.

Who is at risk of getting diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition, and the causes aren’t known, but people with a family history of the condition are at higher risk of developing it than those with no familial connection.

Type 2 diabetes is more common in people who are overweight (especially those carrying excess fat around the mid-section), who have very low levels of physical activity and who eat an unhealthy diet.

“Things like family history, obesity, poor diet – and by poor diet, I mean processed foods, high-carbohydrate foods, ice-cream, soft drinks, processed food… they’re all risk factors,” says Hamish.

Other risk factors for type 2 diabetes include:

  • Prediabetes
  • High blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Ageing (55 or older)
  • Women who are overweight and have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
  • Being older than 35 and from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, Pacific Island, Indian subcontinent or Chinese cultural background
  • Having had gestational diabetes during pregnancy.

Living a healthy lifestyle can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes – think: maintaining a healthy weight, moving regularly, eating a balanced diet and not smoking. If you have high blood pressure or cholesterol, managing those is also important.

Related: How a diabetes risk test can save your life

How can nib help?

We offer The COACH Program© available to eligible nib members at no additional cost* who’ve been diagnosed with or are at risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease or respiratory disease. Perfect for those who struggle to keep motivated and need some extra support, it includes personalised coaching with nutrition, fitness and lifestyle advice.

With your coach, you’ll be able to set up your own health goals, get advice on the questions to ask your doctor and education on how to maintain your optimal level of health – so you can make long-term changes.

Interested in finding out whether you’re eligible or simply keen to get more information? Visit our Health Management Programs page.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

*Available to eligible nib members who’ve held Hospital Cover for 12 months and served their relevant waiting periods. Additional criteria vary according to each program

About Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.

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