What is diabetes? What is prediabetes?
Diabetes is a metabolic disorder that occurs when your blood sugar (glucose), is too high (hyperglycemia). Glucose is what the body uses for energy, and the pancreas produces a hormone called insulin that helps convert the glucose from the food you eat into energy. When the body does not produce enough insulin - or does not produce any at all - the glucose does not reach your cells to be used for energy. This results in diabetes.
There are two main types of diabetes.
- Type 1 diabetes, formerly called juvenile diabetes, is an autoimmune condition in which the body does not produce insulin because the body's immune system attacks insulin-producing cells from the pancreas called beta cells.
- Type 2 diabetes is a condition in which cells cannot use blood sugar (glucose) efficiently for energy. This occurs when blood sugar gets too high over time, and the cells become insensitive to insulin.
Prediabetes (sometimes spelled pre-diabetes) is a condition that often precedes type 2 diabetes. Prediabetes is when your blood sugar is higher than normal, but not quite high enough to be diagnosed with diabetes. Prediabetes does not usually have any symptoms so there may be no warning signs. A blood test can confirm if you have prediabetes.
If a person does not change their diet and lifestyle, prediabetes can become type 2 diabetes within 5 years.
Are You At Risk for Prediabetes?
About 84 million adults in the US (more than 1 out of 3) have prediabetes, and about 90% do not know they have it until a routine blood test is ordered, or symptoms of type 2 diabetes develop. For example, excessive thirst, frequent urination, and unexplained weight loss. If you have prediabetes also it puts you at risk for heart attack, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Which signs and symptoms are unique to women with diabetes?
Many type 1 and type 2 diabetes symptoms in women are the same as those in men; however, there are some symptoms and complications of diabetes unique to women.
Vaginal itching and pain as well as vaginal and oral yeast infections: An overgrowth of Candida albicans fungus can cause vaginal yeast infections and oral yeast infections (oral thrush). Symptoms of vaginal yeast infections include:
- Vaginal itching and pain
- Vaginal discharge
- Painful sexual intercourse.
Symptoms of oral thrush include:
- White patches in the mouth
- Redness and soreness
- Trouble eating or swallowing
- Swollen red gums or inner cheeks.
5. Decrease in sex drive: Women with diabetes may experience lower sex drive (libido), blood flow problems to the genital area, which can decrease sexual response and orgasm, and nerve damage (diabetic neuropathy) that can result in vaginal dryness and decreased sensation.
6. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): This is a common cause of female infertility and insulin resistance. It can cause signs and symptoms like irregular periods, acne, thinning scalp hair, and excess hair growth on the face and body. High insulin levels also increase the risk of developing diabetes, and about half of women with PCOS develop diabetes.
7. Urinary tract infections (UTIs): A UTI occurs when bacteria enter anywhere in the urinary tract, including the urethra, ureters, kidneys, and bladder. They are much more common in women than in men in general, and they occur more often in people with diabetes because the sugar in the urine presents a breeding ground for bacterial growth.
Which signs and symptoms are the same?
There are diabetes symptoms that both women and men have in common:
- Excessive thirst and hunger
- Frequent urination
- Weight loss or gain
- Blurred vision
- Slow-healing wounds
- Skin infections
- Darkening of skin in areas of body creases (acanthosis nigricans)
- Breath odor that is fruity, sweet, or acetone
- Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet
Some complications of type 1 and type 2 diabetes are the same, for example, skin, eye, circulation, low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), high blood sugar (hyperglycemia), ketoacidosis, and amputation.
How does diabetes affect women differently than men?
Men, women, and children can develop diabetes, but the disease can present problems unique to women. A 2007 study found that between 1971 and 2000, death rates for men with diabetes declined, but death rates for women did not.
In general, women live longer than men do because they have a lower risk of heart disease, but when women develop diabetes, their risk for heart disease skyrockets, and death by heart failure is more likely in women than in men. Another study also found that in people with diabetes, heart attacks are more often fatal for women than they are for men. Other examples of how diabetes affects women differently than men are:
There are several reasons suggested for why both type 1 and type 2 diabetes may affect women more dramatically than men:
- In women with diabetes, the HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels drop, which results in greater heart disease risk.
- Women with diabetes have less estrogen, and lower levels of estrogen are associated with kidney disease.
- Women with diabetes may receive less effective health care, particularly for heart disease and heart disease risk factors.
- Women with diabetes often have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which is a risk factor for diabetes, and can result in fertility problems.
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Will my type 1 or type 2 diabetes affect my pregnancy?
Diabetes need not affect a pregnancy if it is properly controlled. Women with diabetes should talk to their doctor when planning to conceive so they can get blood sugar levels under control before becoming pregnant. You will need to understand how to monitor and control your diabetes and blood sugar levels during pregnancy.
If you have high blood sugar levels during pregnancy, there are risks to both the baby and the mother. High blood glucose levels can result in:
What is gestational diabetes?
When diabetes occurs in women during pregnancy, it is called gestational diabetes. It usually is diagnosed between the 24th and 28th weeks of pregnancy. Like in type 1 and type 2 diabetes, blood sugar levels become too high. When women are pregnant, more glucose is needed to nourish the developing baby. The body needs more insulin, which is produced by the pancreas. In some women, the body does not produce enough insulin to meet this need, and blood sugar levels rise, resulting in gestational diabetes.
Fortunately, for most women, gestational diabetes will go away once the baby is born. However, women who have had gestational diabetes are at increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
Risk factors for gestational diabetes include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Family history of diabetes
- Ethnicity: higher risk for Hispanics, African Americans, Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, Asian Americans, or Pacific Islanders
- Age over 25
- Previous gestational diabetes, stillbirth or miscarriage, or having a large baby (9 pounds or more)
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or another health condition known to be associated with insulin problems
- Problems with insulin or blood sugar, such as insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, or “prediabetes”
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Heart disease
What are the signs and symptoms of gestational diabetes?
Doctors will test for gestational diabetes during the 24th to 28th weeks of pregnancy, as this usually is when the condition develops. Often, gestational diabetes has no symptoms, but you may experience some symptoms common to diabetes such as:
- Sugar in the urine (this is detected in a test done at the doctor’s office)
- Increased thirst
- Frequent urination
- Blurred vision
- Weight loss
- Increased infections (vaginal, bladder, and skin)
What should I do if I think I may have prediabetes, diabetes, or gestational diabetes?
If you notice any of the symptoms of diabetes, see your doctor. If diabetes is untreated, it can lead to serious complications including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, blindness, kidney disease, and nerve damage.
Your doctor will check your blood glucose levels, and if you are diagnosed with diabetes, your doctor will guide you on a plan to keep your blood sugar levels normal. If your diabetes is mild, your doctor will likely recommend a diet plan, exercise, and weight loss. Your doctor may prescribe medications that help reduce blood sugar levels. In some women, insulin may be necessary.
Medically Reviewed on 9/27/2018
Womenshealth.gov. "Diabetes." Updated: Jun 12, 2017.
"National Diabetes Prevention Program."
American Diabetes Association. "Before Pregnancy." Updated: Nov 05, 2013.
American Pregnancy Association. "Gestational Diabetes." Updated: Apr 12, 2017.
CDC. "PCOS and Diabetes, Heart Disease, and Stroke..." Updated: Oct 11, 2016.
NIH; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. "Symptoms and Causes of Diabetes." Updated: Nov 2016.
HIH; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "Am I at risk for gestational diabetes?" June 2012.