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Diabetes

Diabetes is a condition that causes someone's blood glucose levels to become too high. There are two main types – type 1 and type 2.


What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition that causes someone's blood sugar levels to become too high.

Usually, a hormone called insulin, which is produced in the pancreas, controls our blood glucose levels. It moves the glucose produced from food out of the bloodstream and into our cells where it can be used as energy.

However, if you have diabetes, your body doesn't produce enough insulin, or the insulin produced doesn't work properly. This means that your body is unable to break down the glucose into energy.

Glucose is important – it's our main source of energy, but if you have too much in your bloodstream it can lead to health problems.


What are the different types of diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong condition that affects around 1 in 10 people in the UK. As with other types of diabetes, it occurs when the pancreas is producing little or no insulin.

We don't know the exact cause of type 1 diabetes, but we know that it's not linked to age, diet or lifestyle.

It's thought that genetics can play a role, as well as other environmental factors. 

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is also caused by blood glucose levels being too high because your pancreas can't make enough insulin or the insulin that your pancreas makes doesn't work as it should. About 9 in 10 people with diabetes in the UK have type 2 diabetes. 

There are many different causes, but unlike type 1 diabetes, the risk of developing type 2 diabetes does increase as you get older, especially if:

  • you're overweight
  • you've ever had high blood pressure
  • a close family member has diabetes
  • you're of South Asian, African-Caribbean or Black African descent.

The most likely factor is a family history of type 2 diabetes. 


What are the main symptoms of diabetes?

The main signs of diabetes are:

  • feeling very thirsty
  • going to the toilet more than usual
  • feeling very tired
  • unexplained weight loss
  • blurred vision
  • cuts or wounds that take a while to heal.

Over a longer period, high blood glucose can damage your heart, eyes, feet and kidneys, so it's important to contact a doctor if you experience the main symptoms of diabetes.

They can test you for diabetes – this is usually a simple urine and blood test. The sooner you're diagnosed, the sooner you can begin to manage the condition. 

Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in childhood or in young adulthood, but the symptoms of type 2 can develop slowly.


How is diabetes treated?

Being diagnosed with diabetes can be difficult to deal with. There isn’t currently a cure for diabetes, but treatment has come a long way so it's now a condition that many people live long and full lives with.

The type of treatment you'll receive will depend on the type of diabetes you have:

  • Type 1 diabetes is treated by taking insulin – either by an injection or a pump. It's important to test your blood glucose regularly – especially before and after meals – to make sure the blood glucose levels aren't too high or too low. With the right treatment, type 1 diabetes can be managed.
  • Type 2 diabetes is treated in different ways and somtimes a combination of methods depending on the individual. Many people are prescribed medication by their doctor to manage it. This medication lowers the amount of glucose in the blood to a safer level. In some cases, insulin treatment is needed. People with type 2 diabetes may also be advised to eat healthier, lose weight and be more active. Type 2 diabetes can be managed with the right treatment and care. While there's currently no cure for type 2 diabetes, there have been instances of people putting it into remission – but this won't be possible for everyone.

What is prediabetes?

Prediabetes means your blood sugar levels are higher than they should be. Although they aren't high enough for you to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, this does mean you're at a high risk of developing it. 'Prediabetes' is also known as non-diabetic hyperglycaemia. 

'Prediabetes' isn't a clinical term, but it's good to know what it means because you might hear it used.

Having prediabetes doesn’t mean you'll definitely get type 2 diabetes – but it's a good time to make some lifestyle changes, such as eating healthier and being more active. 


How can I reduce my risk of diabetes?

Unfortunately, type 1 diabetes can't be prevented and is usually diagnosed earlier in life. But it's possible to control it and live well through a combination of monitoring blood glucose levels and injecting insulin.

There are things you can do to reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes as you get older by improving your diet and lifestyle.

Find out more about reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes


I've been diagnosed with diabetes – what should I do now?

If you've been diagnosed with diabetes, it's important that you take some time to understand your diagnosis.

Together with your doctor, you'll come up with a management plan. It's really important that you follow this – unmanaged diabetes can lead to a number of complications for your eyes, feet and kidneys as well as being a risk factor for other health conditions.

People diagnosed with diabetes should also have annual checkups to review their symptoms and assess how they're managing – so make sure that you have these booked in.

Diabetes UK have a helpline specifically for people with diabetes, their family or friends, and people who are worried that they're at risk of diabetes. 

You can call the Diabetes UK Helpline on 0345 123 2399. Lines are open Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm.

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Last updated: Sep 27 2023

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