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Is Diabetes a Disability? Symptoms, Treatment Options, and Causes

Diabetes is a well-known disease many people have to face. It is a chronic illness that can make your blood glucose (sugar) level too high. By taking proper care of your health, it's easier to treat your diabetes and you can minimize the likelihood of developing complications.

A woman with diabetes symptoms consults with her doctor

What is diabetes?

Diabetes mellitus is a group of illnesses that affect how your body uses blood glucose. Glucose is crucial to maintaining your health because it's the major energy source for most of the cells that form your tissues and muscles. It's also the main fuel source for your brain. Regardless of its type, diabetes leads to too much glucose in the blood, which can cause serious health issues. If diabetes isn't treated and managed properly, it can lead to complications. 

Diabetes types 

The two types of chronic diabetes are type-1 diabetes mellitus and type-2 diabetes mellitus. There are also reversible diabetes conditions. Prediabetes is when your blood glucose is higher than normal but not high enough for a diabetes diagnosis. Gestational diabetes is a condition that happens during pregnancy and may resolve after the delivery of the baby. 

Is diabetes a disability?

From a medical point of view, diabetes is a serious disease that substantially limits the endocrine system. Because of that, some organizations, like the American Diabetes Association, say that diabetes is a disability even if it's well managed.

The term "disability" can also have specific legal and cultural definitions that are different from how the term is sometimes used in ordinary speech.

Diabetes symptoms

The symptoms of diabetes vary and depend on the level of your blood sugar. Some people with diabetes don't show symptoms early on, especially those with type-2 diabetes or prediabetes. The symptoms and signs of type-1 diabetes tend to be more severe and appear quickly. 

Some symptoms and signs of type-1 and type-2 diabetes are:

  • Increased thirst
  • Extreme hunger
  • Frequent urination
  • Unexplained weight loss 
  • Fatigue
  • Blurry vision
  • Irritability
  • Slow-healing sores
  • Ketones in your urine (ketones are produced when fat breaks down because there's not enough insulin in the body)
  • Frequent infections including skin, gum, and vaginal infections

Type-1 diabetes can develop in people of any age, but it more commonly develops in children or adolescents. Type-2 diabetes is the more common of the two. It can also develop in people of any age but is seen more often after the age of 40. 

There are many long-term and serious complications of diabetes, such as kidney disease and heart disease. Your chances of developing these complications increase if your blood glucose levels aren't controlled. 

Diabetes causes

Type-1 diabetes causes

It's not known what exactly causes type-1 diabetes. In people with diabetes, the immune system destroys the cells that produce insulin in the pancreas. This leaves no or very little insulin. Without it, glucose starts building up in the bloodstream instead of moving into cells. 

The cause of type-1 diabetes may be a combination of environmental factors and genetic susceptibility, though the exact nature of these factors is still not clear. 

Type-2 diabetes and prediabetes causes

In both these conditions, the body's cells develop resistance to insulin. Again, sugar starts accumulating in the bloodstream. The cause of type-2 diabetes is also thought to be a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If diabetes is properly treated by following appropriate lifestyle changes, it can be very manageable.

Gestational diabetes causes

When you're pregnant, the placenta releases hormones to support the pregnancy. These hormones can make your cells resistant to insulin. Normally, the pancreas produces extra insulin to overcome this resistance. But in some cases, this doesn't happen, and glucose begins to accumulate in the blood, leading to gestational diabetes. 

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Type-1 diabetes risk factors

Some factors that may increase your risk of developing type-1 diabetes are:

  • Family history of the disease.
  • You have diabetes autoantibodies in your blood.
  • You live in certain countries, including Sweden and Finland, which have a higher incidence of the disease.

Type-2 diabetes and prediabetes risk factors

Some factors that may increase your risk of developing type-2 diabetes and prediabetes are:

  • You are overweight or obese.
  • You are inactive.
  • Family history of the disease.
  • People from some racial/ethnic groups including Hispanics, African–Americans, Asian-Americans, and American Indians are at a greater risk.
  • The risk increases as you become older.
  • Having gestational diabetes during pregnancy makes you more prone to develop type-2 diabetes in the future.
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome increases the risk of developing diabetes.
  • Having low levels of blood HDL and high levels of blood triglycerides also increases your risk.

Diabetes treatment

A woman with diabetes checking her blood sugar levels

Depending on how well you treat diabetes using medicines and lifestyle changes, it can be a very manageable condition. Depending on the type of diabetes, you may use oral medication, insulin, and/or blood-sugar monitoring to treat the disease. 

Type-1 diabetes treatment

The aim of treatment for type-1 diabetes is to keep the blood glucose levels within the normal range to prevent or delay complications. Treatment includes insulin therapy to control your blood sugar. With type-1 diabetes, you may need to take insulin for your whole life. There are many types of insulin including short-acting insulin, rapid-acting insulin, long-acting insulin, and intermediate-acting insulin. You may need to take insulin either through an insulin pump or an injection. 

Type-2 diabetes treatment

Exercise and diet form an important part of treating type-2 diabetes, but you may also need oral medication or insulin therapy. Your doctor may combine medicines from different classes to help control your blood glucose levels. Some of the drugs that your doctor may prescribe to treat type-2 diabetes are metformin, sulfonylureas, meglitinides, thiazolidinediones, DPP-4 inhibitors, GLP-1 receptor agonists, and SGLT2 inhibitors. 

Lifestyle changes to manage your diabetes

By following these lifestyle changes, you can help manage your diabetes. 

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Losing excess weight may help lower your blood glucose levels. 
  • Eat healthy. Your diet should center around fewer calories, more vegetables, fewer refined carbohydrates (particularly sweets), fewer foods that contain saturated fats and trans fat (such as fast food), and more foods that contain fiber (such as whole grains). 
  • Make physical activity a part of your daily routine. Do at least 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic activity (moderate intensity) most days of the week. You can walk briskly, dance, do yoga, ride a bike, etc. 
  • Monitor your blood glucose levels regularly as advised by your doctor. 

Diabetes dos and don'ts

Dos

Identify yourself by wearing a bracelet or tag that says that you have diabetes, especially if you take insulin or other blood-sugar-lowering medication.

  • Schedule a regular (preferably yearly) physical exam and routine eye examination along with regular diabetes checkups.
  • Get regular vaccinations.
  • Pay specific attention to your feet. Check them every day for any sores, blisters, swelling, redness, or cuts, and report to your doctor if you notice any problems. 
  • Keep your blood cholesterol levels and blood pressure under control.
  • Take care of your dental health. 
  • There's no specific diabetes diet, but you can come up with a plan with your doctor. Be ready to eat more vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Reduce or avoid saturated fats, sweets, and refined carbs. Only your healthcare professional can give you the right advice for you.

Don'ts with diabetes

  • Don't smoke or use any other kind of tobacco. If you do, your doctor can help you quit. 
  • Don't drink alcohol, or drink moderately and with food. The maximum recommended quantity of alcohol for women is one drink per day.
  • Don't get stressed, as stress may raise your blood glucose. Learn some relaxation techniques. Get lots of sleep. 
  • Don't skip meals, as skipping meals can lead to hypoglycemia. 

Diabetes can be manageable if you treat it appropriately. It is a chronic, lifelong disease that causes your blood glucose levels to become too high. The various types of diabetes are type-1 and type-2 diabetes, prediabetes, and gestational diabetes. In type-1 diabetes, there is no or very little insulin in your body. In type-2 diabetes, your body's cells develop resistance to insulin. The treatment of diabetes depends on its type and may include insulin therapy, oral medication, and/or lifestyle changes. 

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