Diabetes Complications

Diabetes can cause a number of serious complications, especially if blood sugar levels are not managed properly. Children who have diabetes are at increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease (e.g., atherosclerosis; may lead to heart attack, stroke, and poor circulation), neuropathy (nerve damage; can affect any body system and commonly affects the feet), and nephropathy (kidney damage).

Diabetes can cause eye complications, such as glaucoma, cataracts, and damage to the retina (retinopathy). People who have diabetes also are at increased risk for gum disease as a result of high blood glucose levels that bring more plaque and sugar to the mouth, decreased production of saliva and collagen (protein that helps form and strengthen the gums), and poor blood flow.

Children with diabetes can develop bacterial skin infections (e.g., sty, boil, carbuncle), intense itching (caused by yeast infections or poor circulation), and fungal skin infections (e.g., athlete's foot, ringworm). Other common skin complications include diabetic blisters and digital sclerosis (thickening of the skin of the fingers).

Nerve damage and poor circulation in the feet can cause calluses and foot ulcers. Infections and wounds may take longer to heal. In severe cases, amputation of part of the foot or leg may be necessary.

Children who have type 1 diabetes also are more likely to develop other autoimmune disorders, such as thyroid disease, celiac disease, and Addison's disease. Thyroid disease occurs in approximately 15 to 20 percent of people with type 1 diabetes. Hyperthyroidism develops when the thyroid gland produces too much hormone and hypothyroidism develops when it produces too little. Some children develop goiter, which is an enlargement of the thyroid gland.

Celiac disease affects the way the intestines process gluten, which is a protein present in wheat. In this condition, an immune system reaction to gluten leads to gastrointestinal (GI) problems, such as abdominal cramps, diarrhea, bloating, and constipation. About 5 percent of people with type 1 diabetes develop celiac disease.

Addison's disease develops when the adrenal glands no longer produce enough of the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. Symptoms include chronic fatigue, muscle weakness, loss of appetite, and nausea. Diabetes ketoacidosis, also called diabetic coma, is a life-threatening condition that causes vomiting, stomach pain, and trouble breathing, and is sometimes mistaken for gastroenteritis, flu, or appendicitis. Children with diabetes ketoacidosis must be treated with insulin immediately.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 27 Aug 2008

Last Modified: 08 Oct 2015