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Diabetic Eye Problems

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease in which your blood glucose, or blood sugar, levels are too high. Glucose comes from foods you eat. The cells of your body need glucose for energy. A hormone called insulin helps the glucose get into your cells.

With type 1 diabetes, your body doesn't make insulin. With type 2 diabetes, your body doesn't make or use insulin well. Without enough insulin, glucose builds up in your blood and causes high blood sugar levels.

What eye problems can diabetes cause?

Over time, high blood sugar may damage the blood vessels and lenses in your eyes. This can lead to serious diabetic eye problems which can harm your vision and sometimes cause blindness. Some common diabetes eye problems include:

  • Diabetic retinopathy, which is the leading cause of blindness in American adults. It affects blood vessels in the retina (the light-sensitive layer of tissue in the back of your eye). The blood vessels may swell and leak fluid into your eye. If it's not treated, it can cause serious problems such as vision loss and retinal detachment, where the retina is pulled away from its normal position at the back of your eye.
  • Diabetic macular edema (DME), which happens when blood vessels in the retina leak fluid into the macula (a part of the retina needed for sharp, central vision). This usually develops in people who already have other signs of diabetic retinopathy.
  • Glaucoma, a group of eye diseases that can damage the optic nerve (the bundle of nerves that connects the eye to the brain). Glaucoma from diabetes happens when the blood vessels in the front of your eye are damaged, and new blood vessels grow near the iris (the colored part of your eye). The blood vessels block the space where fluid drains from your eye. This causes fluid to build up and pressure to increase inside your eye.
  • Cataract, which happen when the clear lens in the front of your eye becomes cloudy. Cataracts are common as people age. But people with diabetes are more likely to develop cataracts younger and faster than people without diabetes. Researchers think that high glucose levels cause deposits to build up in the lenses of your eyes.
Who is more likely to develop diabetic eye problems?

Anyone with diabetes can develop diabetic eye disease. But your risk of developing it is higher if you:

  • Have had diabetes for a long time
  • Don't have good control over your high blood sugar or high blood pressure
  • Are pregnant
  • Have high blood cholesterol
  • Smoke tobacco
What are the symptoms of diabetic eye problems?

In the early stages, diabetic eye problems usually don't have any symptoms. That's why regular dilated eye exams are so important, even if you think your eyes are healthy.

You should also watch for sudden changes in your vision that could mean an emergency. Call your doctor right away if you notice any of these symptoms:

  • Many new spots or dark wavy strings floating in your vision (floaters)
  • Flashes of light
  • A dark shadow over part of your vision, like a curtain
  • Vision loss
  • Eye pain or redness

Talk with your doctor if you have these symptoms, even if they come and go:

  • Spots or dark wavy strings floating in your vision
  • Blurry or wavy vision
  • Vision that changes a lot
  • Trouble seeing colors
How are diabetic eye problems diagnosed?

Eye doctors do dilated eye exams to diagnose eye problems. A dilated eye exam uses eye drops to open your pupils wide so your doctor can look for signs of eye problems and treat them before they harm your vision. Your doctor will also test your vision and measure the pressure in your eyes.

What are the treatments for diabetic eye problems?

Treatment for diabetic eye problems depends on the problem and how serious it is. Some of the treatments include:

  • Lasers to stop blood vessels from leaking
  • Injections (shots) in the eye to stop new, leaky blood vessels from growing
  • Surgery to remove blood and scar tissue or replace a cloudy lens
  • Eye drops to lower fluid pressure in the eye

But these treatments aren't cures. Eye problems can come back. That's why your best defense against serious vision loss is to take control of your diabetes and get regular eye exams. It's also important to keep your blood pressure and cholesterol in a healthy range.

NIH: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

Diabetic Heart Disease

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease in which your blood glucose, or blood sugar, levels are too high. Glucose comes from foods you eat. The cells of your body need glucose for energy. A hormone called insulin helps the glucose get into your cells.

With type 1 diabetes, your body doesn't make insulin. With type 2 diabetes, your body doesn't make or use insulin well. Without enough insulin, glucose builds up in your blood and causes high blood sugar levels.

What is diabetic heart disease?

Diabetic heart disease is a term for heart disease in people who have diabetes. If you have diabetes, you are much more likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke than people who don't have diabetes. And you may start having these problems at a younger age.

Over time, the effects of high blood sugar from diabetes can include damage to the blood vessels and nerves in your heart. This damage increases your chance of developing heart diseases, including:

  • Coronary artery disease (CAD). It happens slowly as a sticky material called plaque builds up in the arteries that supply your heart muscle with blood.
  • Heart failure. With this condition, your heart can't pump enough oxygen-rich blood to meet the needs of your body.
  • Cardiomyopathy. This is a group of diseases in which the heart muscle may become thick or stiff.
Who is more likely to develop diabetic heart disease?

Diabetes puts you at serious risk for heart disease. It also makes you more likely to develop other conditions that raise your risk even more, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • High blood levels of LDL "bad" cholesterol
  • High triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood) with low blood levels of HDL "good" cholesterol

Your risk for heart disease is also higher if you

  • Are male
  • Smoke
  • Have obesity
  • Have too much belly fat around your waist, even though you're at a healthy weight:
    • For men, that's a waist more than 40 inches
    • For women, that's a waist more than 35 inches
  • Have a family history of heart disease
  • Have chronic kidney disease
What are the symptoms of diabetic heart disease?

In the early stages, heart disease usually doesn't have any symptoms. But if your heart disease worsens, you can have symptoms. Your symptoms will depend on the type of heart disease you have. They might include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Arrhythmia (problem with the rate or rhythm of your heartbeat)
  • Swollen feet and ankles
  • Chest pain

It's important to know that people with diabetes may not feel chest pain. That's because diabetes can damage the nerves in your heart. If you have any symptoms that could be heart disease, talk with your health care provider.

How is diabetic heart disease diagnosed?

To find out if you have diabetic heart disease, your provider will:

  • Ask about your medical history, including your symptoms and other health conditions you may have
  • Ask about your family history, to find out if you have relatives who have or had heart disease
  • Do a physical exam
  • Likely run some tests to help understand your personal risk for heart disease, including:
    • Blood tests to check your cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar levels
    • A blood-pressure check
    • Heart tests, if needed

Depending on your risk level, your provider may send you to a cardiologist (a doctor who specializes in heart diseases) for care. If you do have heart disease, treatment will depend on the type of heart disease you have.

How can I prevent diabetic heart disease?

You may be able to prevent heart disease or keep it from getting worse by working with your provider to:

  • Control your blood sugar levels
  • Manage other conditions you may have that can raise your risk for heart disease
  • Take any medicines your provider prescribed
  • Make heart-healthy habits part of your daily life
  • Follow a healthy eating plan for diabetes

NIH: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

Diabetes and Pregnancy

Diabetes is a disease in which your blood glucose, or blood sugar, levels are too high. When you are pregnant, high blood sugar levels are not good for your baby.

About seven out of every 100 pregnant women in the United States get gestational diabetes. Gestational diabetes is diabetes that happens for the first time when a woman is pregnant. Most of the time, it goes away after you have your baby. But it does increase your risk for developing type 2 diabetes later on. Your child is also at risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Most women get a test to check for diabetes during their second trimester of pregnancy. Women at higher risk may get a test earlier.

If you already have diabetes, the best time to control your blood sugar is before you get pregnant. High blood sugar levels can be harmful to your baby during the first weeks of pregnancy - even before you know you are pregnant. To keep you and your baby healthy, it is important to keep your blood sugar as close to normal as possible before and during pregnancy.

Either type of diabetes during pregnancy increases the chances of problems for you and your baby. To help lower the chances talk to your health care team about:

  • A meal plan for your pregnancy
  • A safe exercise plan
  • How often to test your blood sugar
  • Taking your medicine as prescribed. Your medicine plan may need to change during pregnancy.

NIH: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

Diabetes Complications

What is diabetes?

If you have diabetes, your blood glucose, or blood sugar, levels are too high. Glucose comes from the foods you eat. A hormone called insulin helps the glucose get into your cells to give them energy. With type 1 diabetes, your body does not make insulin. With type 2 diabetes, your body does not make or use insulin well. Without enough insulin, the glucose stays in your blood.

What health problems can diabetes cause?

Over time, having too much glucose in your blood can cause complications, including:

  • Eye disease, due to changes in fluid levels, swelling in the tissues, and damage to the blood vessels in the eyes
  • Foot problems, caused by damage to the nerves and reduced blood flow to your feet
  • Gum disease and other dental problems, because a high amount of blood sugar in your saliva helps harmful bacteria grow in your mouth. The bacteria combine with food to form a soft, sticky film called plaque. Plaque also comes from eating foods that contain sugars or starches. Some types of plaque cause gum disease and bad breath. Other types cause tooth decay and cavities.
  • Heart disease and stroke, caused by damage to your blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart and blood vessels
  • Kidney disease, due to damage to the blood vessels in your kidneys. Many people with diabetes develop high blood pressure. That can also damage your kidneys.
  • Nerve problems (diabetic neuropathy), caused by damage to the nerves and the small blood vessels that nourish your nerves with oxygen and nutrients
  • Sexual and bladder problems, caused by damage to the nerves and reduced blood flow in the genitals and bladder
  • Skin conditions, some of which are caused by changes in the small blood vessels and reduced circulation. People with diabetes are also more likely to have infections, including skin infections.
What other problems can people with diabetes have?

If you have diabetes, you need to watch out for blood sugar levels that are very high (hyperglycemia) or very low (hypoglycemia). These can happen quickly and can become dangerous. Some of the causes include having another illness or infection and certain medicines. They can also happen if you don't get the right amount of diabetes medicines. To try to prevent these problems, make sure to take your diabetes medicines correctly, follow your diabetic diet, and check your blood sugar regularly.

NIH: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

Diabetes in Children and Teens

Until recently, the common type of diabetes in children and teens was type 1. It was called juvenile diabetes. With Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas does not make insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps glucose,or sugar, get into your cells to give them energy. Without insulin, too much sugar stays in the blood.

Now younger people are also getting type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes used to be called adult-onset diabetes. But now it is becoming more common in children and teens, due to more obesity. With Type 2 diabetes, the body does not make or use insulin well.

Children have a higher risk of type 2 diabetes if they are overweight or have obesity, have a family history of diabetes, or are not active. Children who are African American, Hispanic, Native American/Alaska Native, Asian American, or Pacific Islander also have a higher risk. To lower the risk of type 2 diabetes in children:

  • Have them maintain a healthy weight
  • Be sure they are physically active
  • Have them eat smaller portions of healthy foods
  • Limit time with the TV, computer, and video

Children and teens with type 1 diabetes may need to take insulin. Type 2 diabetes may be controlled with diet and exercise. If not, patients will need to take oral diabetes medicines or insulin. A blood test called the A1C can check on how you are managing your diabetes.