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What is diabetes?

What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a common life-long health condition. The two main types are, Type 1 and the most common, Type 2.
There are over 2.9 million people diagnosed with diabetes in the UK and another estimated 850,000 people who have the condition but don’t know it.

Type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is when no insulin is produced at all because the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas have been destroyed. Nobody knows for sure why these cells have been damaged but the most likely cause is the body having an abnormal reaction to the cells. There is nothing that you can do to prevent Type 1 diabetes. This type of diabetes is always treated with insulin injections.

Type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is when the body either does not produce enough insulin, or the insulin it produces does not work as well as it should (due to insulin resistance). This type of diabetes is treated with lifestyle changes such as following a healthy balanced diet, increasing physical activity, and losing weight if you need to. Some people may need diabetes tablets and/or injectable therapies to achieve normal blood glucose levels.

Some of the risk factors associated with Type 2 diabetes are out of your control while others, such as being overweight, eating a poor diet and inactivity you can change and so reduce the risk of developing diabetes. Education and support to do this is available from your GP and organisations such as

The risk factors for Type 2 diabetes
You are at risk if you:

  • Are white and over 40 years old
  • Are black, Asian or from a minority ethnic group and over 25 years old

And have one or more of the following risk factors:

  • A close member of your family has Type 2 diabetes (parent or brother or sister)
  • You are overweight or if your waist is 31.5 inches or greater for women; 35 inches or greater for Asian men and 37 inches or over for white and black men
  • You have high blood pressure or you’ve had a heart attack or a stroke
  • You are a woman with polycystic ovary syndrome and you are overweight
  • You have been told you have impaired glucose tolerance or impaired fasting glycaemia
  • You are a woman and you’ve previously had gestational diabetes
  • You have severe mental health problems

The more risk factors that apply to you, the greater your risk is of having Type 2 diabetes.

For further information on assessing your risk visit diabetes risk score.

Symptoms of diabetes
The symptoms that occur are because some or all of the glucose stays in the blood and it is not being used as fuel for energy. The body tries to reduce blood glucose levels by flushing the excess glucose out of the body in the urine.

The main symptoms of undiagnosed diabetes can include:

  • passing urine more often than usual, especially at night
  • increased thirst
  • extreme tiredness
  • unexplained weight loss
  • genital itching or regular episodes of thrush.
  • slow healing of cuts and wounds
  • blurred vision

In Type 1 diabetes the signs and symptoms are usually very obvious and develop very quickly, typically over a few weeks. The symptoms are quickly relieved once the diabetes is treated with insulin and under control.

In Type 2 diabetes the signs and symptoms may not be so obvious, as the condition develops slowly over a period of years and may only be picked up in a routine medical check up. Symptoms are relieved once diabetes is treated and under control.

If you have any of the above symptoms contact your GP. Early diagnosis, treatment and good control of diabetes is vital to reduce the chances of developing serious diabetes complications.

To be diagnosed with diabetes you need to have blood samples tested in a hospital pathology lab. This might be two fasting blood tests or an Oral Glucose Tolerance Test (OGTT), which involves drinking a set amount of glucose followed by a series of blood tests. In the future a single blood test, which is able to provide an average of the last three months’ glucose levels, will be used. This is called an HbA1c blood test.

Diabetes is serious and should be treated properly. People with diabetes should have access to good, regular healthcare. However, at the same time, the decisions that are made by those living with diabetes are central to the management of their condition.

Although diabetes cannot yet be cured it can be managed very successfully. This is likely to involve lifestyle changes that will have enormous health benefits and allow a person to continue their normal day-to-day life. You may also be required to take diabetes medication.