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What you need to know

Many diabetics struggle with more than just maintaining their blood glucose levels—and there are several types of diabetes-related skin issues that you may have to manage. Ranging from dry, itchy skin and rashes to dark patches of discoloration, more serious blisters and sores that have difficulty healing—diabetes can not only wreak havoc on your skin, but it can leave it more prone to infection as well.1 Due primarily to chronically high blood sugar levels that lead to poor circulation commonly affecting the hands, lower legs and feet, along with damage to blood vessels and nerves,2 it’s important to be aware of how diabetes may impact your skin and swiftly address any issues with your doctor to prevent further problems.

Your skin and signs of diabetes1

  • Dryness
  • Itching
  • Dark, discolored patches
  • Rashes
  • Blisters
  • Sores
  • Bacterial infections
  • Fungal infections
  • Thickened skin

Diabetes skin symptoms

Diabetes is a disease in which blood glucose levels are too high due to the body’s inability to produce insulin (Type 1) or the body’s inefficient production and use of insulin (Type 2). This disease affects many parts of the body, including complications that impact the skin. Decreased blood flow to the skin, damage to blood vessels and nerves, and diabetes’ effect on collagen within the skin lead to changes in skin texture and appearance, as well as its ability to heal.2 In addition, glucose-lowering medications can also increase the risk of diabetes-related skin issues.3

It's important to note that when your skin shows signs of diabetes, it's not to be taken lightly. The signs can occur in cases of pre-diabetes or before a diagnosis is confirmed and if blood glucose levels are poorly managed. This is why it’s important to see your doctor or dermatologist if you experience unexpected skin changes of any kind.

Itchy, dry skin and rashes

One of the most common diabetes-related skin symptoms and a sign of elevated glucose levels is dryness. Your lower legs are usually the first to develop dry skin and subsequent itching. Controlling the itch should be a priority. This will allow you to minimize scratching, which is important because diabetics can have a harder time healing and fending off bacteria if the skin is broken or inflamed.2 Stabilizing diabetes and glucose levels can also help reduce dryness and itching.1

Skin discoloration and changes in texture

Diabetic dermopathy: Also known as “shin spots,” these diabetes skin symptoms involve light brown, oval or circular patches of scaly skin on the lower legs due to damage to the small blood vessels that supply the tissues with nutrition and oxygen. Although this form of diabetes-related skin discoloration typically does not require treatment, it may persist even when your blood glucose is well-controlled.1

Necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum (NLD): Though rarer than diabetic dermopathy, NLD also causes patches of dark skin on the legs, which are sometimes associated with extreme itching and pain. Though treatment is generally unnecessary, it is important to talk to your doctor about ways to prevent this condition from progressing.1

Acanthosis nigricans: This type of diabetes-related skin discoloration can present as raised patches of brown, tan or gray skin on the neck can, and can also appear in the groin and armpits as well as on the elbows and knees. The patches often have a velvety feel and appearance. This type of skin discoloration is more prevalent in diabetic patients who are obese.1

Other skin-related signs of diabetes

Skin tags: Though common in those in good health, there may be a connection between numerous skin tags and diabetes; an abundance of skin tags may indicate a high level of insulin in the blood. If you haven’t been diagnosed by a physician, this can be one of many skin signs of diabetes that warrants a visit to the doctor.1

Bacterial infections: If you have diabetes you may also be more prone to bacterial infections, which can cause pain, redness, swelling and skin that feels warm to the touch. The most common bacteria that causes infections of the skin are staph and strep, which can lead to boils, sties, folliculitis and changes in the fingernails and toenails. Bacterial infections require medical treatment, which is why it’s imperative to call your doctor if you experience any unusual skin changes.4

Fungal and yeast infections: Infections caused by fungus or yeast are one of many diabetes skin complications. They're more commonly found in those whose glucose levels are not well controlled. Yeast infections appear as areas of red, itchy, swollen skin that may be surrounded by blistering or dry scales and a white, cottage cheese-like discharge in folds of the skin, such as under the breasts as well as in the groin, armpits and corners of the mouth.1,4 Common fungal infections in diabetes patients include athlete’s foot, jock itch, and ringworm that can itch, spread, and worsen if not treated with prescription medication.4

Digital sclerosis: Elevated blood sugar can increase your risk of digital sclerosis, which leads to joint stiffness in the hands, fingers and toes while causing skin in these areas to become thick, tight and waxy.1

Although rare, patients who experience nerve damage from type-2 diabetes may also develop blisters that look like burns. These painless lesions usually heal in a few weeks and typically occur only if blood glucose is not controlled.4

One of the more serious skin signs of diabetes is difficulty healing after experiencing a cut or sore, so it’s essential to keep an eye on any injuries—especially on your lower legs and feet—to prevent infection.1 Again, if you notice any unusual changes in your skin you should see your dermatologist.

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