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How to recognize the early signs and symptoms of diabetes

Kelly Burch,Jason R. McKnight   

How to recognize the early signs and symptoms of diabetes
  • The 3 early signs of diabetes are increased thirst, hunger, and urination.
  • Other symptoms of type 1 diabetes include nausea, vomiting, and weight loss.
  • Signs of type 2 diabetes also include fatigue, recurring yeast infections, and pain or numbness.

Diabetes is a chronic condition diagnosed by abnormally high blood sugar levels. Doctors will administer a blood test to measure blood sugar levels - there's no true way to know whether or not you have diabetes without this blood test.

However, some people who have diabetes also experience key symptoms and early warning signs, such as frequent urination, increased thirst, and excessive hunger.

These warning signs are similar for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, though how they present can vary. Here's what you need to know to spot the symptoms of both types of diabetes.

How to recognize the early signs of diabetes

The early signs of diabetes are referred to as the 3 Ps. According to Orville Kolterman, MD, chief medical officer at Pendulum, a company that makes products to help control glucose levels, these include the following:

Because type 1 diabetics do not produce insulin at all, they often show more dramatic symptoms when compared with type 2 diabetics.

"Usually type 1 is a very rapid deterioration with severe symptoms, landing you in the hospital for a diagnosis," says Stephanie Redmond, a doctor of pharmacy and co-founder of Diabetes Doctor Supplements. "With type 2 diabetes, the pancreas can still create insulin, it just doesn't work as well as it should… so we see less drastic symptoms for type 2 diagnosis."

Here's how to determine these 3 early symptoms of diabetes, and why they occur.

Excessive hunger

You may experience excessive hunger because your body is no longer producing or using insulin properly. Insulin is the hormone that helps your body break down sugars from the food you eat and convert it into energy. But when insulin isn't available or isn't functioning properly within the body, you don't get that energy from the food you eat.

This can cause your body to feel hungry, even when you've eaten. Excessive hunger is an important early warning sign, because it can indicate insulin resistance or high insulin levels even before you'd be able to notice other symptoms.

"Insulin resistance and high insulin levels develop before high blood sugars, so it's a great spot to make some changes early on," Redmond says.

Frequent urination

When blood sugar levels are elevated, the kidneys begin to dump that sugar into your urine, Kolterman says. In turn, this pulls extra water from the body into the urine, filling your bladder faster, causing the need to urinate more frequently.

If you find yourself urinating more frequently, especially if it reaches double your norm, that's cause for concern, Redmond says. You might even notice some other telling signs because of the amount of sugar in their urine.

"I had a man tell me he found ants eating his urine around his toilet because his urine was so sweet," Redmond says. "Or we have patients describing a distinct sugary smell when they urinate."

Increased thirst

You might also find yourself increasingly thirsty because you're urinating so often. Many people with diabetes drink more to deal with the thirst. If you're not drinking enough to quench your thirst - or are drinking sugary beverages that make your frequent urination worse - you might experience additional symptoms of dehydration, including dry mouth or blurred vision.

These symptoms can indicate that your diabetes has progressed and is beginning to affect the rest of your body. "Dry mouth or blurry vision usually mean glucose levels are really high already," Redmond says.

Type 1 diabetes symptoms

Most people with type 1 diabetes - who can't produce insulin on their own - are diagnosed after being hospitalized with severe symptoms, Redmond says. In addition to frequent urination and excessive thirst or hunger, other symptoms may include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss, even if you're eating more

"Because the body doesn't make any insulin, there are no carbs or sugar that the body can use for energy," Redmond says. "So it starts to burn fat for energy, hence, part of the weight loss."

People with untreated type 1 diabetes can also experience diabetes ketoacidosis (DKA). As the body burns fat in an attempt to fuel itself, it releases ketones, which are chemicals in your blood that can be harmful if they're released in excess.

Without treatment, DKA can lead to serious health complications like a coma. If you experience vomiting, confusion, or difficulty breathing, you should seek medical attention immediately.

Type 2 diabetes symptoms

Most people with type 2 diabetes - who can't use insulin properly - are diagnosed after showing elevated blood sugar levels during routine blood work.

"Oftentimes, they will be at the doctor for something else, and they randomly will see a blood test with a high blood sugar," Redmond says.

However, the most common symptoms of type 2 diabetes are excessive hunger or fatigue, Redmond says. Although these present early and can be difficult to detect, they also present at a time when type 2 diabetes can be reversed through lifestyle changes.

Other symptoms are a sign that type 2 diabetes has already progressed. These can include:

  • Yeast infections. Excess blood sugar that is dumped through urine feeds yeast, which can cause a yeast infection, or the growth of excess yeast around the genitals. Symptoms of yeast infections include itching and redness on the vulva or penis, as well as discharge and swelling. This may also occur with type 1 diabetes.
  • Pain or numbness. High sugars can damage blood vessels leading towards nerve endings, which may cause nerve damage, commonly beginning in the feet.

Insider's takeaway

The only way to know for sure whether you have diabetes is to get a blood test from your doctor. While some people will notice early warning signs, these can be difficult to detect, especially for type 2 diabetes. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it's best to seek medical attention.

"The symptoms listed above can also be signs of other issues including kidney, prostate, cancer, or eye diseases," Redmond says. "So while you should be mindful of these symptoms as a possible sign of diabetes, that needs to be evaluated by your doctor to rule out other causes."

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