Diabetes affects some 380 million people worldwide, a number that is steadily increasing. In the near future one in 10 adults will be affected by diabetes. This disease has multiple adverse effects for our health, many of them related to the skin. How can we reduce the risks and protect our skin?
People with longstanding diabetes (high blood sugar) are more prone to skin problems. One in three people with diabetes is affected by skin disorders, which are often the first warning of the presence of the disease. High blood glucose levels cause biochemical changes in the skin that alter its structure and functions. These changes induce dryness, loss of elasticity and premature skin ageing.
People with diabetes more easily develop the following skin conditions:
- Infections caused by bacteria and fungi (especially Candida albicans), resulting in inflammation, itchiness, redness, blisters and flaky skin. The most problematic areas are under the breasts, around the nails, between the fingers and toes, at the corners of the mouth and in the armpits and groin.
- Changes in skin colour, such as the appearance of light brown patches (acanthosis nigricans) and thickening at the back of the neck, in the armpits and groin and below the chest. Vitiligo is also common, resulting in areas of discoloured skin on the chest and belly.
- Diabetic dermopathy (shin spots), which typically emerge as small, light-brown, circular, scaly patches around the shins (not to be confused with age spots).
- Blisters, sores, warts, flakiness, cracking, itchiness, ingrown nails and increased sensitivity to sunlight. Most skin conditions affect the feet because diabetes affects blood circulation.
Prevention and care
Fortunately, most of these problems can be easily prevented or resolved before they develop into a serious health problem. Here are some tips.
- Wash using a mild soap and dry the body thoroughly, especially where skin makes contact (e.g., folds).
- Use moisturizers (but not between the fingers/toes). Keeping the skin hydrated is one of the simplest ways to prevent problems.
- Avoid very hot baths and showers that may dry the skin excessively.
- Inspect red spots, blisters and sores that could end up becoming infected.
- Keep an eye out for lumps or any changes in the feet and visit a specialist for a checkup at least twice a year.
- Treat cuts immediately after first washing them with soap and water.
- Keep blood pressure and cholesterol under control so as to improve circulation and maintain healthy skin.
- Drink plenty of fluids (water and sugar-free drinks) to keep the skin hydrated.
- Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids to nourish the skin. These include fish like salmon, sardines, tuna and mackerel, as well as tofu, nuts and flax seeds.
People with diabetes need to be aware that their disease requires extra attention to the skin. If you observe any changes, make an appointment with a reputable dermatologist.