Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date.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. 2000;62(9):2137-2138

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease that occurs when your body doesn't make enough of a hormone called insulin, or if your body doesn't use insulin the right way. If left untreated, it may result in blindness, heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure and amputations. Only half of the people who have diabetes are diagnosed 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 may include:

  • 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.

Who is at risk for diabetes?

The early stages of diabetes have few symptoms, so at first you may not know you have the disease. Damage may already be happening to your eyes, kidneys and cardiovascular system before you notice symptoms. You have more risk of having diabetes if:

  • You're older than 45 years.

  • 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 are 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 if you have these risk factors. Talk to your doctor about your risk of getting diabetes and about a plan for regular testing.

How will I be tested for diabetes?

Testing, which is also called “screening,” is usually done with a fasting blood test. You will be tested in the morning, so you shouldn't eat anything after dinner the night before. A normal blood sugar test result is lower than 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 higher risk of getting diabetes.

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 is no cure for diabetes, but there are ways to stay healthy and reduce the risk of complications.

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.

Where can I get more information about diabetes?

Your doctor can give you advice about diet and exercise, and how often to be tested for diabetes.

For more 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, or the American Academy of Family Physician's patient education Web site at

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