What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition that causes your blood sugar level to become too high. It is a lifelong condition affecting 3.2 million people in the UK. An estimated 630,000 people have diabetes but don’t know they have it.

There are two types of diabetes:

Type 1

Your body is unable to produce insulin.

Type 1 diabetes is less common than Type 2 and can develop at any age. It usually starts before age 40, often during childhood.

Type 2

Your body is unable to produce enough insulin or cannot make the insulin you have work properly.

Type 2 diabetes is much more common than Type 1. About 90% of people with diabetes have Type 2. It usually starts after age 40 although it is now affecting younger people, including children. South Asian, African-Caribbean and Middle Eastern people are at greater risk of having Type 2 diabetes.

Why is insulin so important?

Insulin works in your body by helping glucose (sugar) enter your body’s cells. Once it is in the cells it is used as fuel for energy.

Insulin is vital for making your body work properly. Without it you can’t lead a healthy life.

How do I know if I have diabetes?

You will probably have one or more of these symptoms:

  • feeling very thirsty
  • urinating frequently, particularly at night
  • feeling very tired
  • weight loss and loss of muscle bulk

Talk to your GP as soon as possible if you notice any of these symptoms.

See if you are at risk of diabetes using the simple test on the BBC website.

Can I do things myself to help my diabetes?

The best thing you can do when you are diagnosed with diabetes is to take control of the condition yourself. By making changes to your lifestyle you can make a huge difference by reducing the risk of complications later on.

There is lots of information and advice on the NHS website about leading a healthier lifestyle.

What treatment will I need?

If you have Type 1 diabetes you will need daily insulin injections, eat a healthy diet and take regular exercise.

If you have Type 2 diabetes the most effective treatment is weight loss or weight control, managed by eating healthily, reducing portion sizes and increasing activity and movement. Most people will require medication and insulin is one of the treatment options for Type 2 diabetes.

You will also have an annual appointment to test your eyes for diabetic retinopathy. This is a common complication of diabetes that, if not treated, can lead to blindness.

If a problem is detected you will be referred to see an eye specialist (ophthalmologist).

Where will I go to for support?

Your GP practice will support you, sometimes with the help of diabetes specialists. Normally you would expect to visit your practice every three or six months. The doctors and nurses at your GP practice will:

  • make sure you have all your annual screening tests
  • work with you to agree a care plan, which will include setting goals to help you lead a healthier lifestyle
  • discuss your medication – are you taking it as it appears on the prescription, is it working for you and are you having any problems?
  • advise you when you need help from other specialist services
  • provide family planning advice

Who will support me?

The doctors and nurses at your GP practice will take overall charge of your treatment. If they feel you need more help they will refer you to one of the many diabetes specialists who work in your area.

You may be referred to a podiatrist if you are having problems with the circulation or nerve supply to your feet, which can happen if you have diabetes.

If you have an active foot problem such as an ulcer, you should be referred quickly to a specialist foot team involving a podiatrist and a consultant diabetologist. They will involve a doctor who specialises in circulation (vascular surgeon) if required.

You will meet dietitians during the education programmes that are available for people with diabetes. Dieticians can help with advice on carb counting and how to manage some of the dietary related conditions some people with diabetes can have.

Diabetic specialist nurses are involved in diabetic education programmes. They can also help you and your practice team with specialist support if you are struggling with your diabetes control.

What about diabetes care for children?

All children diagnosed with diabetes are cared for by their local specialist diabetes teams. These teams will include paediatric diabetic specialist nurses and dieticians. Often children will only visit their own GP to have a medical review once a year.

Where can I learn more?

If you have Type 1 diabetes you will be invited to take part in a training course, at a time to suit you, to learn the skills you will need to manage your condition.

If you have Type 2 diabetes it is recommended that you attend a group education programme within a year of your diagnosis.

Your GP or practice nurse will arrange for you to attend a course. Make sure you discuss this with them at your next appointment if you haven’t already been booked onto a course.

The education courses are led by diabetic specialist nurses and dieticians. At your course you will meet other people with diabetes and learn how they are managing their condition. You will find out more about the risk factors and complications associated with diabetes. You will also learn more about monitoring your condition and medication.

Advice on how to take control of your lifestyle, including food choices and exercise will be offered, together with help on planning for the future.

Help from Diabetes.uk

Diabetes UK is the charity for people with diabetes, their family, friends and carers. Their mission is to improve the lives of people with diabetes and work towards a future without diabetes.

The Diabetes UK website has plenty of information to help support people with diabetes to manage their condition effectively. Here are some highlights:

15 healthcare essentials

These are the 15 basic health checks and services that everyone with diabetes – whatever type – should receive from their healthcare team.

Guide to diabetes

Healthy eating

Getting active and staying active

Frequently asked questions

Are there any support groups in Kent?

Diabetes UK has several support groups in Kent, offering people living with diabetes a chance to meet and share experiences with others. There are also some specialist groups for parents, children and young people with diabetes.

Diabetes support groups in Kent

What will happen if I ignore my diabetes?

If your diabetes is not treated you could suffer from many different health problems. High levels of sugar in your blood can damage your blood vessels, nerves and organs and lead to:

  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Nerve damage, causing tingling or burning pain
  • Retinopathy which can lead to blindness
  • Kidney disease
  • Foot problems that can lead to amputation
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Miscarriage and stillbirth

For more information about complications from diabetes visit the Diabetes UK website.

I have diabetes and want to get pregnant. Do I need to take extra care?

If you are planning a pregnancy you will want to make sure your diabetes control is really good and that the medication you are taking is suitable during pregnancy. It is important to talk to your GP practice team about your plans. They may refer you to a diabetic specialist nurse for support with controlling your diabetes before and during your pregnancy.

Diabetic specialist nurses can also offer help and support if you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes (raised blood glucose diagnosed during pregnancy).

Special care needs to be taken of your eyes if you are pregnant and have diabetes since retinopathy (damage to the ‘seeing’ part of your eyes) can increase. Extra eye checks are recommended during pregnancy to help spot any problems early on.