5 Easy-to-miss Signs of Diabetes

Originally published December 3, 2018

Last updated April 29, 2024

Reading Time: 3 minutes

A woman drinks a glass of water

This common condition can sneak up on you — here’s what to look for, so you can see it coming.

Diabetes is a serious health condition in which your blood sugar is too high for your body to process. Instead, it stays in your bloodstream and, over time, can lead to complications such as heart disease, kidney disease and vision loss. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 37.3 million people in the United States have diabetes, and nearly 23% of people with diabetes are undiagnosed. The CDC also estimates that 96 million Americans have prediabetes, which occurs when blood sugar levels rise but are not yet at diabetic levels. Another concerning statistic indicates that more than 80% of people with prediabetes don’t know they have it.

Why does it seem like diabetes creeps up on people? You may not realize you have the disease, because many of the symptoms are subtle and nonspecific, and with prediabetes, you might not have any symptoms at all. But there are a few symptoms you should look out for, especially if you have existing risk factors, such as being overweight, not getting enough exercise, being 45 or older or having a family history of the disease.

1. Fatigue

To turn food into fuel, your body breaks down what you eat into a type of sugar, called glucose, which is used for energy. To help your body use the glucose, your pancreas produces a hormone, called insulin. But with diabetes, your body resists the insulin. This means you don’t absorb the glucose and end up with less energy, which may lead to a feeling of exhaustion.

2. Thirst and increased urination

When your body isn’t absorbing the right amount of glucose, the kidneys have to work harder to filter it out. This leads to your body making more urine, which in turn makes you go to the bathroom more often. As you drink to quench your thirst, you have to urinate, which can create a vicious circle.

“When sugar levels in the blood get too high, some of the extra sugar spills over into the urine made by the kidneys, and water goes along with it,” says Braden Barnett, MD, an endocrinologist at Keck Medicine of USC and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “This leads to increased urination, and the water and sugar leaving the body in the urine leads to dehydration.”

3. Weight loss and increased hunger

Although diabetes is associated with being overweight, one of the first signs may be weight loss. This is because your body is not getting energy from glucose, so it starts burning muscle and fat. And because you’re not getting enough energy from your food, you may crave more of it.

4. Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet

Having high blood sugar for an extended time can lead to nerve damage, or neuropathy, which may cause tingling, burning or a lack of sensation in your extremities.

“The very small and delicate blood vessels and nerves that serve our hands and feet operate best when blood sugars are normal; they are sensitive to high blood sugar levels, which can lead to tingling and numbness,” Dr. Barnett explains.

5. Blurry vision

Diabetes can lead to vision trouble, as high blood sugar affects fluid levels in the eye, which makes them swell and causes difficulty focusing. Over time, blood vessels in the retina can become damaged, which may lead to permanent eye problems. According to the National Eye Institute, diabetes-related vision loss is a leading cause of blindness among adults.

If you experience any of these diabetes symptoms, see your doctor to assess whether you should have your glucose level checked with a simple blood test. Prediabetes is manageable — and may even be reversible — with lifestyle changes, such as a healthy diet and exercise. These changes are also used in diabetes management, possibly along with medications to regulate insulin levels.

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Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a freelance writer covering health, culture, travel and parenting.