When your blood sugar rises, it kicks off a number of physiological changes in your body. If the rise is short-lived, you probably won’t even notice them. But if your blood sugar jumps dramatically over a period of a few days or weeks, or stays even slightly elevated for a significant amount of time, these symptoms are likely to become hard to ignore.
Still, many people live with diabetes for weeks, months, or even years without knowing it. This is especially true for type 2 diabetes, the symptoms of which tend to come on more gradually and are less noticeable at first. Even for me, despite having every symptom, it took six weeks before I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with type 1.
Knowing the different symptoms of high blood sugar and the physiological causes behind them is the first step to understanding when you need to seek treatment.
This is the most widely known of all diabetes symptoms, but one that is easily overlooked if you are preoccupied.
When glucose gets trapped in the bloodstream, your kidneys have to work extra hard. Once blood sugars rise beyond the levels your kidneys can filter out, the excess glucose begins to pass through into your urine, pulling extra water with it.
Not only does this result in more bathroom trips during the day, but it often leads to getting up multiple times a night. If you don’t typically get up to pee at night and suddenly it’s becoming a habit, that’s a warning sign you shouldn’t ignore. Similarly, if your child can typically hold it through the night and suddenly struggles with bed wetting, it’s time to talk to a doctor.
All that excess water being pulled out as glucose passes through your kidneys also causes your body to become continuously dehydrated.
This unquenchable thirst often comes on quickly and many diagnosed diabetics recognize this feeling as a sign that their blood sugar is higher than it should be. Unfortunately, few non-diabetics associate this symptom with the disease and it is too often ignored.
As if constant thirst isn’t enough, many people with high blood sugar experience excessive hunger as well.
Normally when you eat, the glucose from your food moves into your bloodstream and then into the cells throughout your body. This glucose serves as energy so your cells can function. But when you lack enough insulin to allow glucose to move into your cells, your body begins to starve. Just as it would if you were actually starving, your cells send signals to your brain that they need food. Your brain, in turn, produces hunger hormones to increase your appetite.
These hormones continue bombarding your system no matter how full your stomach is or how high your blood sugar gets. The only cure is to bring your blood sugar down to normal levels.
While constant hunger on its own may be easy to explain away, when combined with weight loss, the seriousness of the situation tends to come into focus.
Because your cells can’t absorb glucose to use as energy, they must resort to using fat. Fats are broken down into ketones which can be transported in the blood and used as energy. While this is a normal process during healthy weight loss, during starvation, the levels of ketones in the blood can become dangerously high and cause serious damage to organs.
Nausea and Vomiting
If enough ketones concentrate in your blood, you will begin to suffer from ketoacidosis.
This acidic state causes stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting. Depending on your blood sugar levels and how much fat your body is able to burn, you may only suffer from these extreme symptoms intermittently even though your blood sugar remains at consistently dangerous levels. Drinking alcohol, even in small amounts, may also increase the likelihood of vomiting if ketones are already present.
Sweet Smelling Breath
One type of ketone your body produces is acetone.
This sweet-smelling substance is the same chemical found in nail polish remover. This ketone is often expelled through the breath, causing a person to smell like they’ve been drinking alcohol. While this is not in itself dangerous, it is a sign that blood sugar levels may be higher than normal and should be taken seriously.
With excess ketones and starvation comes the natural secondary symptom of fatigue.
As your cells deplete fat deposits in your body and the glucose circulating in your blood remains out of reach to your cells, you begin to run out of energy. Your body will do everything it can to reduce energy use. If you suddenly feel very tired, begin sleeping much more than usual, or struggle to keep up with your normal routine and have any other symptoms on this list, it’s worth the time to talk to a doctor.
Changes in Vision
Another serious sign of very high or prolonged high blood sugar is a change in vision.
As blood sugar rises, excess fluid moves into the lenses of your eyes. This causes them to change shape, which, in turn, causes your vision to blur. You may even notice your vision changing slightly throughout the day or from one day to the next.
These frequent changes in your sight are not typical of normal eye aging and should be taken very seriously. If you feel like your vision is suddenly much worse or fluctuating by the day, skip the optometrist and go to your doctor instead.
Yeast loves sugar. So it should come as no surprise that high blood sugar allows the naturally occurring populations of yeast in your body to grow out of control.
While these infections are most common in women, yeasts live throughout the body in both males and females. High blood sugar can cause yeast growth in the gut and on the skin. If you have a yeast overgrowth in your digestive tract, you may suffer from stomach pains or even cracks on your lips that won’t heal or a white film on your tongue. Skin yeast infections typically occur in the folds of the skin and tend to be red and itchy.
Bottom Line: Listen to Your Body
While it may seem like anyone of these symptoms on their own should raise an alarm, keep in mind that they occur simultaneously with the rest of life. It’s easy to disregard a little fatigue, excess hunger, and some weight loss if you’ve been extra active or overly stressed. And who has time to pay attention to how often they go to the bathroom when there is so much else going on at work and at home?
But when it comes to diabetes, it is absolutely worth it to take a moment if you appear to be suffering from any of these symptoms. A wasted trip to the doctor’s office is a small price to pay to avoid potential long-term damage to your body. Because if you do wait too long, organ damage will be the least of your worries.