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What are diabetes complications? A helpful list of symptoms.

Diabetes complications are one of those things none of us wants to think about… Having diabetes can be stressful enough without worrying about complications.

The good news is that with careful diabetes management, regular doctor’s visits and knowing what to look out for, you’re able to slow down – and even sometimes reverse – diabetes-related complications. Shannon Innell gives us all the info.

diabetes complications

What are diabetes complications?

Although this isn’t a complete list, here are the most common diabetes complications. These are often caused by blood sugar levels that are consistently higher than normal. Over time, these levels cause damage to the blood vessels throughout your body.

Let’s take a closer look at retinopathy, heart disease, kidney failure, neuropathy and foot damage. Remember: you are in charge of your diabetes health! With the right management (using TEEL), you can avoid diabetes complications.


Retinopathy occurs when the blood vessels in the tissue at the back of the eye(s) are damaged. While retinopathy can, if left untreated, cause partial or total blindness, regular check-ups with your ophthalmologist (eye specialist) can help you identify retinopathy early on. This gives you and your doctor time to outline a diabetes management plan to stop, or slow down, its progression. 

Symptoms to look out for:

  • Blurred vision
  • Having trouble seeing the difference between colours 
  • Darker areas when you look at things

Heart disease

Heart disease is a common diabetes complication. People with diabetes can also have other conditions that increase their risk of heart disease, like high cholesterol and high blood pressure

The fact is that having diabetes makes you twice as likely to have heart disease, and it makes your heart work harder – which puts strain on your heart. So what can you do?  Protect your heart by making simple lifestyle changes and visiting your doctor regularly.

Symptoms to look out for:

  • Cold sweats and clammy hands
  • Feeling light-headed or tired, even if you’ve rested
  • Heartburn
  • Pain in your neck, left arm or jaw 
  • Feeling short of breath

Smoking, being overweight, not getting enough exercise and drinking too much alcohol can increase your risk of heart disease. We know these aren’t easy habits to change, but they can make a big difference. Eating the wrong kinds of foods can also increase your risk.

Foods to avoid:

  • Saturated fats, found in butter, oils or cheese; 
  • Trans fats, found in baked or fried goods;
  • Sodium (salt) found in canned or salted foods, and 
  • High cholesterol foods like fatty meats or processed meals.

Kidney failure

When the blood vessels around your kidneys are damaged, it becomes harder for your kidneys to filter your blood properly. As a result, your body stores water, waste materials and salts that would normally have been removed. 

Kidney nerve damage also makes it harder for you to empty your bladder when you pee, which can cause bladder infections that eventually cause further damage to your kidneys. 

While kidney damage is common in people with diabetes, you can improve your kidney function with diet and lifestyle changes. Unfortunately, you cannot reverse the damage already done. If it’s left untreated, kidney damage may be irreversible and lead to kidney failure and eventually, dialysis. If you suspect you may have issues with your kidneys, speak to your doctor as soon as possible.

Symptoms to look out for:

  • Foggy mind
  • Weight loss and not much appetite
  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Fluid retention and swollen feet or ankles
  • Muscle cramps
  • Puffy eyes 
  • Feeling like you need to pee more often than usual


Neuropathy is one of the most common diabetes-related complications. It occurs when the tiny blood vessels that supply your entire nervous system with blood are damaged. If your blood sugar is high for a long time, it increases your risk of developing neuropathy. Smoking and excessive drinking are also risk factors for neuropathy.  

Symptoms to look out for:

  • Tingling or numbness in your feet
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Muscle weakness
  • Changes in vision

If you experience any of these symptoms, visit your doctor as soon as you can.

Foot damage

Foot damage is probably the most ‘well-known’ diabetes complication. Unfortunately, nerve damage to your feet is not reversible. Once damaged, the nerves in your feet aren’t able to naturally repair themselves. Here’s a very helpful video with a podiatrist about diabetes and feet.

Schedule an appointment with your doctor if you notice any signs of trouble with walking, numbness, or burning in your hands or feet. 

 Symptoms to look out for:

  • Numbness in your feet
  • Difficulty walking
  • Burning sensation in your feet (worse at night)
  • Very sensitive feet
  • Loss of sensation when you touch your feet

So what can you do to lower your risk of diabetes complications?

lower the risk of diabetes complications

Lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of diabetes complications:

  • Follow a healthy diet made up of vegetables, fresh fruits, whole grains and lean proteins
  • Cut out processed foods, sweets and sugary drinks
  • Cut out, or decrease your alcohol intake
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Get active – go for a 30 minute walk every day

Diabetes management tips:

Looking for a long, healthy, happy life free of diabetes complications? Of course you are! We all are… Here are a few tips to manage your diabetes.

  • As much as possible, keep your blood sugar within your target range 
  • Monitor and manage your blood pressure 
  • Lower, or maintain, your cholesterol levels within a healthy range
  • Stop smoking
  • Manage your stress by exercising, meditating or speaking to a mental health professional

Now that you know what to look out for, you’re more equipped to recognise the symptoms of any of these diabetes complications.

Remember: if you manage your diabetes carefully, don’t miss your doctor’s appointments and live a healthy lifestyle, you can minimise your risk of developing diabetes complications.

As with everything in life, it’s easier to do if you’re not alone. Join us on Diabetic South Africans to connect with other people living with diabetes in South Africa.

What to read next?

Time in target: what it is, why it’s important, and how it can help: Understand the new measure that’s more helpful than the HbA1c.

Life with diabetic retinopathy: What’s it like to live with diabetic retinopathy? Community member Rencia Phillips shares her story.

10 Fast facts about heart disease: Wondering what you need to know about heart disease? Here are all the basics, fast!

Photo by christopher lemercier and Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

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  1. […] honest, I know very little about heart health and diabetes. I can rattle it off as one of the main long-term complications of diabetes – amputation, blindness, kidney failure, heart disease – but I don’t know too much […]

  2. […] diabetes for a long time may have peripheral nerve damage (also called neuropathy) and issues with circulation, leading to reduced blood flow to the hands and feet. “Circulation issues increase the […]

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Sweet Life is a registered NPO/PBO (220-984) with a single goal: to improve diabetes in South Africa. We are funded by sponsorships and donations from aligned companies and organisations who believe in our work. We only share information that we believe benefits our community. While some of this information is linked to specific brands, it is not an official endorsement of that brand. We believe in empowering people with diabetes to make the best decisions they can, to live a healthy, happy life with diabetes.