Diabetes And Skin Conditions: What You Need To Know

Diabetes takes a toll on your body, especially your skin. It’s not uncommon for an unusual or persistent skin problem to be what alerts a doctor to check for diabetes in the first place. As many as 1/3 of people with diabetes will struggle with a skin irritation that is either caused or aggravated by their diabetes.

That hardly seems fair given that diabetics already have a lot to think about when it comes to maintaining their health. The good news is that most skin complications can be treated effectively or even avoided altogether.

Photo: flickr/Katie Tegtmeyer
Photo: flickr/Katie Tegtmeyer

What’s the connection between my skin and diabetes?

People with diabetes are more prone than the non-diabetic population to get bacterial infections, fungal infections, and itchy skin. Some skin conditions are almost always specific to people with diabetes. Why? The answer has to do with high blood sugar.

High blood sugar affects your skin. When there is too much sugar (glucose) in your blood, your body tries to remove the excess through frequent urination. The result is that there is less water in your body to moisturize your skin, and the skin can become dry.

Over time, high blood sugar can also lead to nerve damage (neuropathy), and when the nerves that control sweat glands are damaged, too much or too little sweating can dry out the skin. High blood sugar can also lead to poor circulation, and poor circulation combined with nerve damage makes it difficult for the skin to heal sores or cuts, increasing the risk of infection. (For more on diabetic neuropathy, click here.)

Poor circulation, nerve damage, and a higher risk for dry skin means that someone with diabetes is more prone to develop skin irritations and will likely have a harder time getting rid of them.

Photo: pixabay/BubbleJuice
Photo: pixabay/BubbleJuice

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General Skin Conditions

Anyone can experience these skin conditions, but people with diabetes are extra susceptible and should be extra vigilant in watching for them.

  • Bacterial Infections. People with diabetes should look out for styes, boils, folliculitis (infection of the hair follicles), carbuncles, and infections around the nails. Inflamed tissues might be hot, swollen, red, and/or painful to the touch.
  • Fungal Infections. Warm, moist areas of the skin are especially susceptible to fungal infections that result in itchy rashes surrounded by blisters and scales. Skin under the breasts, between fingers and toes, in the armpits, or around the groin are common sites for fungal infections, but infections are prone to happen on any areas of the skin that are continually warm and moist.
  • Itching. Yeast infections, dry skin, and poor circulation can all cause itching. If poor circulation is the culprit, the itching is most likely to occur in the lower legs.
Photo: flickr/aearlsnd
Photo: flickr/aearlsnd

Skin Conditions Specific to Those With Diabetes

  • Acanthosis Nigricans. This is a condition that causes tan or brown raised bumps to appear on your neck, armpits, and groin, but it can also appear on hands, elbows, and knees. This condition usually affects people who are overweight.
  • Allergic Reactions. Diabetes medications can sometimes cause allergic reactions. Watch out for rashes and bumps, especially near insulin injection sites.
  • Diabetic Blisters. This is a rare but troublesome irritation and can occur on fingers, hands, toes, feet, and sometimes other areas. These blisters may look like burn blisters and can be large but not red or painful. Usually diabetic blisters heal by themselves in about three weeks.
Photo: flickr/Gunnar Grimnes
Photo: flickr/Gunnar Grimnes

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