8 Diabetes warning signs you can see on your skin

Your skin may be trying to tell you that you have diabetes, or that your diabetes treatment plan isn’t working. Here’s what diabetes warning signs to look for.

Diabetes is one of those conditions that’s difficult to see. Common symptoms like fatigue or increased thirst are invisible. But the high blood sugar that comes with diabetes affects the entire body, including the skin. In fact, about 1 in 3 people with diabetes will develop a skin rash or another skin problem like dry skin, dark patches, or even infections at some point.

The good news is that many of these skin problems clear up once your blood sugar is well controlled, says Debra Jaliman, M.D. Dr. Jaliman is an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist. That said, any of the skin problems below can suggest that you’re developing diabetes. Or, if you already have diabetes, they’re a red flag that the condition is not well controlled.

Here are 8 diabetes warning signs to look for on your skin. If any of them are familiar, make an appointment with your primary care physician or endocrinologist to talk about your concerns.

1. Acanthosis Nigricans

“This is a dark patch that can occur in the armpits, in the groin, or even on the back of your neck,” says Dr. Jaliman. “It can happen because you have too much insulin in your blood.” It also may be the first sign that you have diabetes, or even prediabetes. Prediabetes is higher than normal blood sugar. It can progress to type 2 diabetes if left untreated.

Did you know that you can pair your glucometer with Wellframe, a digital health management app? It lets you share your blood sugar levels with your care team for help managing your condition. Many health plans offer Wellframe for free.

2. Open Sores or Wounds

These usually occur on the feet or legs. “When you have high blood sugar that goes untreated for a long time, it leads to poor circulation and nerve damage,” explains Dr. Jaliman. That can also make it harder for skin wounds to heal.

“Because of the nerve damage, people with diabetes do not feel the area on their feet or legs when they injure it. So they don’t treat these wounds. And they get progressively worse,” Dr. Jaliman adds. That’s why if you do have diabetes, you should check your feet daily for sores and open wounds.

3. Necrobiosis Lipoidica

This lower-leg rash causes raised red shiny patches with a yellow center. It’s more common in women. As the rash progresses, it turns into patches of swollen, hard skin. It may also be itchy and painful. See a dermatologist for treatment options such as topical or oral medication or skin grafts.

4. Dry, Itchy Skin

Skin becomes dry and itchy because of elevated blood sugar, says Dr. Jaliman. “It’s important to control the blood sugar, which will help with the itching.” Dr. Jaliman also recommends that you use fragrance-free cleansers, since fragrances can irritate skin. Look for cleansers that have hydrating ingredients. A few good ones:

  • Glycerin.
  • Hyaluronic acid.
  • Ceramides.

Also, put on a moisturizer as soon as you get out of the shower. This helps seal in moisture. If the itching really bothers you, you can also try an over-the-counter antihistamine.

5. Digital Sclerosis

This is hard, thickening skin. It forms on your fingers or toes. Fingers can feel stiff and difficult to move. And it may even feel like you have pebbles in your fingertips. Over time, digital sclerosis can spread to your arms, upper back, shoulders, and neck. It also often has the texture of an orange peel.

Tell your doctor about the thickening skin. Getting better control of your diabetes can help. You may also need physical therapy to make sure you can still bend and straighten your joints.

6. Skin Infections

People with diabetes tend to get skin infections. The reason: Their dry skin makes it harder for them to fend off harmful bacteria. Common infections include:

  • Styes (infections of the oil glands in the eyelids).
  • Folliculitis (infection of hair follicles).
  • Infections around the nails.

The skin itself will feel hot, swollen, red, and painful. The infections can be treated with antibiotics. But to help prevent them, you’ll need better blood sugar control. You can also practice good skin care habits, including:

  • Moisturizing skin often.
  • Treating cuts right away.
  • Keeping your home more humid during cold, dry winter months.

7. Xanthelasma

These are yellow patches on the eyelids. They are caused by high fat levels (usually cholesterol) in the blood, says Dr. Jaliman. They can be controlled through a combination of diet and prescription medication for diabetes. “To get rid of them once they occur, they can be treated by freezing with liquid nitrogen, acid treatment, or electrodessication,” Dr. Jaliman adds. Electrodessication uses an electrical current to remove lesions from skin.

8. Skin Tags

These are small skin growths that can show up on anyone. They are most common on the eyelids, neck, underarms, and groin. “Skin tags are usually not that important and occur in 25% of the population,” Dr. Jaliman says. “Some studies have linked them to diabetes. It can be a sign of high blood sugar,” she adds. You should talk to your doctor about new or changing skin tags. They may suggest that your diabetes isn’t under control. And your doctor can help you take the reins again.

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