Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 1998;58(6):1369-1370

See related article on diabetes mellitus.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes mellitus is a serious, chronic condition of high blood sugar. If left untreated, it may result in blindness, heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure and amputations. Diabetes is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. More than 178,000 people die each year from this disease. Although over 8 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with diabetes, only half of the people who actually have diabetes are diagnosed. This happens because in the early stages of diabetes, there are few symptoms, or the symptoms may be the same as in other health conditions.

What are the symptoms of diabetes?

Early symptoms of diabetes include the following:

  • Extreme thirst

  • Frequent urination

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Blurry vision that changes from day to day

  • Unusual tiredness or drowsiness

  • Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet

  • Frequent or recurring skin, gum or bladder infections

If you have any of these symptoms, call your family doctor right away.

Am I at risk for diabetes?

The early stages of diabetes have very few symptoms, so you may not know you have the disease. Damage may already be occurring to your eyes, your kidneys and your cardiovascular system even before you notice symptoms. You have a higher chance of getting diabetes if:

  • You're older than 45 years of age

  • You're overweight

  • You don't exercise regularly

  • Your parent, brother or sister has diabetes

  • You had a baby that weighed more than 9 pounds or you had gestational diabetes while you were pregnant

  • You're black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian or a Pacific Islander

If you have one or more of these risk factors, your doctor may want you to be tested for diabetes. You might also be tested at a younger age and more often than every three years if you have risk factors. Talk to your doctor about your risk of developing diabetes and about a plan for regular testing.

How will I be tested for diabetes?

Testing, which is also called “screening,” is now done with a fasting blood test. You'll be tested in the morning, so you shouldn't eat anything after dinner the night before (it's OK to drink plain water or black coffee). A normal blood sugar test result is below 110 mg per dL. A test result higher than 125 mg per dL suggests diabetes, but you should have two tests that are higher than 125 mg per dL, on two different days, before a diagnosis of diabetes is made. Test results from 110 mg per dL to 125 mg per dL suggest that you have a high risk of getting diabetes. You should be tested again in a year.

Why is it important for diabetes to be diagnosed early?

Many people have diabetes for about five years before they show the symptoms of diabetes. By that time, some people already have eye, kidney, gum or nerve damage. There's no cure for diabetes, but there is hope. If you get more exercise, watch your diet, control your weight and take any medicine your doctor prescribes, you can make a big difference in reducing or preventing the damage that diabetes can do. The earlier you know you have diabetes, the sooner you can make these important lifestyle changes.

I don't have diabetes yet, but I'm at risk. Can diabetes be prevented?

Exercising regularly, keeping your weight under control and eating a healthy diet help prevent diabetes. These methods are also helpful in treating early diabetes.

Where can I get more information about diabetes?

Your family doctor can tell you if you have diabetes. He or she can give you advice about diet and exercise, and how often you should be screened for the disease.

For free information about diabetes, call the American Diabetes Association at 1-800-342-2383. They may be able to give you information about free screening programs in your area. You can also visit their Web site at

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