How Can You Die From Diabetes That Is Untreated?

Diabetes can increase the risk of other health problems, but people can also live with it for many years.

Diabetes is a chronic condition that affects millions of people in the United States. This condition occurs when people's bodies cannot regulate their blood sugar levels, which can cause dangerous health effects. However, people can live for many years with proper diabetes treatments.

People with diabetes can have type 1 or type 2 diabetes. For people with type 1 diabetes, this condition prevents them from making insulin, a hormone that controls blood sugar. On the other hand, type 2 diabetes prevents people from creating enough insulin or responding to the insulin signals. Both conditions can lead to high blood sugar.

Treatments for diabetes are effective at controlling blood sugar levels. However, untreated diabetes can lead to severe health complications, including death. To find out more, Health spoke with Donald Mcclain, MD, professor of endocrinology and metabolism at Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina.

Here are some common but dangerous complications of diabetes, and how people with diabetes can protect themselves.

Chemicals in Your Blood

When diabetes is well managed, patients can live long and healthy lives. However, untreated diabetes can lead to high blood sugar and diabetic ketoacidosis, a serious condition that can be deadly.

Diabetic ketoacidosis occurs when people with diabetes cannot use their blood sugar for energy. Your body's cells use normally sugar for energy, but they require insulin signals to get that sugar from the blood. Without insulin, people with diabetes have to use fat for energy, creating harmful amounts of chemicals called ketones. This complication is more common in people with type 1 diabetes, but can also occur in people with type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes treatments prevent both high blood sugar and diabetic ketoacidosis by making sure the cells can take sugar from the blood. Most people with type 1 diabetes can use an insulin pump or manually inject themselves with insulin several times a day. Meanwhile, people with type 2 diabetes can make lifestyle changes, take medications, or use insulin depending on their case. If you have diabetes, ask your healthcare provider which approach is the best for you.

Despite treatments for diabetes, ketoacidosis can still happen—and without immediate insulin injections, it can be fatal. This can happen when people skip doses of insulin, but can also be caused by illnesses or certain medications.

Some symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis include feeling thirsty, urinating frequently, vomiting, difficulty breathing, weakness, confusion, and fruity-smelling breath. If you suspect you have diabetic ketoacidosis, contact a healthcare provider and get immediate medical help.

Organ Damage Over Time

Another way diabetes can lead to death is by damage done to organs and tissues in the body over time. "For example, the blood vessels in the kidneys can be damaged by high blood sugar," said Dr. Mcclain—a complication that can lead to kidney failure.

This same type of organ and blood-vessel damage can also lead to blindness and amputation of feet or legs. These changes can reduce your quality of life and raise the risk of infection, injuries, or additional illnesses. "We know that keeping blood sugar under control, for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of these complications," Dr. Mcclain said.

In addition to diet and lifestyle changes, people with type 2 diabetes sometimes need insulin injections to control their blood sugar. This can be helpful for people with more severe diabetes who do not respond strongly enough to the levels of insulin their body makes. However, not all people with diabetes need insulin injections. Talk to a healthcare provider about the best way to control your blood sugar.

Heart and Blood Vessel Problems

About two-thirds of deaths among people with diabetes are caused by cardiovascular conditions like heart attacks or strokes, Dr. Mcclain said. People with diabetes have a high risk for these diseases because high blood sugar can damage your heart and blood vessels.

Furthermore, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with diabetes more often have clinical obesity, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure. These conditions can also damage or harden your blood vessels and heart, increasing your risk for heart disease.

Maintaining a healthy weight, eating a balanced diet, and getting regular physical activity are all ways people with diabetes can help protect their hearts and brains as they age. Also make sure to work with your healthcare provider to monitor your blood sugar, pressure, and cholesterol.

Low Blood Sugar

Overtreatment of diabetes can also harm your health. "If you take too much insulin and your blood sugar goes way down, that can cause seizure, coma, and death," Dr. Mcclain said. Low blood sugar can starve the brain of oxygen, added Dr. Mcclain, and it can also trigger irregular heartbeats. According to the American Heart Association, these irregular heartbeats increase your risk for strokes or heart attacks.

Improvements in medical technology have made overtreatment much less likely than it once was, but it's still a risk—especially as patients get older. "The warning system that lets your brain know that your blood sugar is getting too low becomes blunted as you age," Dr. Mcclain said. You may not feel the symptoms of low blood sugar when you get older.

Some mild symptoms of low blood sugar can include shakiness, sweating, and feeling irritated. If you have low blood sugar, the American Diabetes Association recommends taking 15 grams of carbohydrates every 15 minutes until your blood sugar levels are at least 70 mg/dL. In severe cases, people with low blood sugar may need to be treated with a hormone called glucagon that raises blood sugar.

Diabetes Treatments Protect Your Health

Medical practitioners are getting better at treating diabetes and preventing complications so patients can live longer healthier lives. "I had several diabetes patients in their 80s who are doing quite well," Dr. Mcclain said. "It's not easy, and it's a lot of work on the part of the patient, but we have good tools that are getting better all the time, and we can do this."

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