Women and men share many of the same symptoms of diabetes. However, women also experience a handful of unique symptoms. Learn about the signs and risk factors.
Diabetes in women
Diabetes describes a group of metabolic diseases in which a person has high blood sugar due to problems processing or producing insulin. Diabetes can affect anyone, regardless of age, race, gender, or lifestyle.
Between 1971 and 2000, the death rate for men with diabetes fell, according to a study in Annals of Internal Medicine. This was a major coup, reflecting the many advances in diabetes treatment. However, according to the study, the death rate for women with diabetes showed no signs of improvement. Additionally, the difference in death rates between women who had diabetes and those who didn’t more than doubled.
This study of diabetes in men and women presented several possible reasons for the gender differences. Reasons included:
- Women often receive less aggressive treatment for cardiovascular risk factors and conditions related to diabetes.
- The complications of diabetes in women are more difficult to diagnose.
- Women often have different kinds of heart disease than men.
- Hormones and inflammation act differently in women.
The findings emphasize how diabetes affects women and men differently.
Although the death rate was higher among women previously, there has been a shift in gender distribution of type two diabetes showing higher rates among men. The most current reported stats (in 2012) found that 13.4 million women and 15.5 million men have been diagnosed with diabetes in the United States alone.
According to the global reports from the World Health Organization from 2014, there was an estimated 422 million adults living with diabetes. This is up from 108 million that was reported in 1980.
Symptoms of diabetes in women
If you’re a woman with diabetes, you’ll experience many of the same symptoms as a man. However, some symptoms are unique to women. Understanding both will help you identify diabetes and find early treatment.
Symptoms unique to women include:
1. Vaginal and oral yeast infections and vaginal thrush
An overgrowth of yeast caused by the candida fungus can cause vaginal yeast infections, oral yeast infections, and vaginal thrust. These infections are common in women.
When the infection develops in the vaginal area, symptoms include itching, soreness, vaginal discharge, and painful sex. Oral yeast infections often cause a cottage-cheese coating on the tongue and inside of the mouth. High levels of glucose in the blood triggers the growth of fungus.
2. Urinary infections
The risk of a urinary tract infection (UTI) is higher in women who have diabetes. UTIs develop when bacteria enters the urinary tract. These infections can cause painful urination, a burning sensation, and bloody or cloudy urine. If left untreated, there’s the risk of a kidney infection.
UTIs are common with diabetes due to poor circulation and the inability of white blood cells to travel through the bloodstream and kill infections.
3. Female sexual dysfunction
Diabetic neuropathy occurs when high blood glucose damages nerve fibers. This can trigger tingling and loss of feeling in different parts of the body, including the hands, feet, and legs. This condition may also affect sensation in the vaginal area and lower a woman’s sex drive.
4. Polycystic ovary syndrome
This disorder occurs when the adrenal gland produces a higher amount of male hormones. Signs of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) include irregular periods, weight gain, acne, and depression. It can also cause infertility and a type of insulin resistance. This results in elevated blood sugar levels and increases the risk of developing diabetes.
Symptoms experienced by both women and men
Both men and women may experience the following symptoms of undiagnosed diabetes:
- increased thirst and hunger
- frequent urination
- weight loss or gain that has no obvious cause
- blurred vision
- wounds that heal slowly
- skin infections
- patches of darker skin in areas of the body that have creases
- breath that has a sweet, fruity, or acetone odor
- reduced feeling in your hands or feet
It’s important to keep in mind that many people with type 2 diabetes have no noticeable symptoms.
Pregnancy and type 1 and type 2 diabetes
Some women with diabetes wonder if it’s safe to become pregnant. The good news is that you can have a healthy pregnancy after being diagnosed with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. However, it’s important to manage your condition before and during pregnancy to avoid complications.
If planning to have a baby, it’s best to try to get your blood glucose levels as close to your target range as possible before you get pregnant. Your target ranges when pregnant may be different from the ranges when you aren’t pregnant.
If you have diabetes and you’re pregnant or hoping to become pregnant, talk to your doctor about the best ways to manage your and your baby’s health. For instance, your blood glucose levels and general health need to be tracked before and during your pregnancy.
When you’re pregnant, blood glucose and ketones travel through the placenta to the baby. Babies require energy from glucose just as you do. However, babies are at risk for birth defects if your glucose levels are too high. Transferring high blood sugar to unborn babies puts them at risk for cognitive impairments, developmental delays, and high blood pressure.
Gestational diabetes is different from type 1 and type 2 diabetes because it’s specific to pregnant women. Gestational diabetes occurs in approximately 9.2 percent of pregnancies. The hormones of pregnancy interfere with the way insulin works. This causes the body to make more of it. However, for some women, this still isn’t enough insulin, and they develop gestational diabetes.
Gestational diabetes often develops later in pregnancy. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, pregnant women diagnosed with gestational diabetes early in pregnancy may have had diabetes prior to pregnancy.
In most women, gestational diabetes goes away after pregnancy. If you’ve had gestational diabetes, your risk for type 2 diabetes increases. Your doctor may recommend diabetes and prediabetes testing every few years.
Risk factors for diabetes in women
According to the Office on Women’s Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, you are at risk for type 2 diabetes if you:
- are older than 45
- are overweight or obese
- have a family history of diabetes (parent or sibling)
- are African-American, Native American, Native Alaskan, Hispanic, Asian-American, or Native Hawaiian
- have had a baby with a birth weight of more than 9 pounds
- have had gestational diabetes
- have high blood pressure
- have high cholesterol
- exercise less than three times a week
- have other health conditions that are linked to problems using insulin, such as PCOS
- have a history of heart disease or stroke
At all stages of life, women’s bodies present obstacles for managing diabetes and blood sugar. Challenges may occur because:
- The fluctuating hormones associated with the menstrual cycle, childbearing, and menopause make it more difficult to maintain proper blood glucose levels. To keep your blood glucose at a healthy level, check your blood sugar several times a day the week before, during, and after your period. Do this for a few months, and then adjust your insulin dose as needed.
- Some birth control pills can increase blood glucose. To maintain a healthy level of blood glucose, ask your doctor about switching to a low-dose birth control pill.
- Glucose in your body can cause yeast infections. This is because glucose speeds the growth of fungus. There are over-the-counter and prescription medications to treat yeast infections. You can potentially avoid yeast infections altogether by maintaining better control of your blood sugar. Take insulin as prescribed, exercise regularly, reduce your carb intake, choose low-glycemic foods, and monitor your blood sugar.
There are steps you can take to prevent or delay diabetes, avoid its complications, and manage symptoms.
There are a variety of medications you can take to manage the symptoms and complications of diabetes. These include:
- insulin therapy
- metformin (Glucophage), which reduces blood sugar
- sulfonylureas like chlorpropamide, which increase pancreatic insulin secretion
- meglitinides, which stimulate the pancreas to release more insulin
Many find that lifestyle changes can help them manage their diabetes. Lifestyle changes include:
- exercising and maintaining a healthy weight
- avoiding smoking cigarettes
- eating a diet focused on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- monitoring your blood sugar
Women with diabetes can try a variety of alternative remedies to manage their symptoms. These include:
- taking supplements like chromium or magnesium
- eating more broccoli, buckwheat, sage, peas, and fenugreek seeds
- taking plant supplements
Remember to consult with your doctor before trying any new treatments. Even if they’re natural, they can interfere with current treatments or medications.
A variety of complications are frequently caused by diabetes. Some of the complications that women with diabetes should know the signs and symptoms for are:
- Eating disorders: Some research suggests that eating disorders are more common in women with diabetes.
- Coronary heart disease: Many women who have type 2 diabetes already have heart disease when diagnosed (even young women).
- Skin conditions: These include bacterial or fungal infections.
- Nerve damage: This can potentially lead to pain, impaired circulation, or loss of feeling in affected limbs.
- Eye damage: This symptom may lead to blindness.
- Foot damage: If not treated promptly, this can result in amputation.
Once you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, there is no cure, only symptom management.
A recent study has found that women with diabetes are 40 percent more likely to die because of the disease. It also found that all those with type 1 diabetes have shorter life expectancies than the general population. People with type 1 diabetes may see their life expectancy lowered by 20 years, and those with type 2 diabetes may see it lowered by 10 years.
Though there is no cure for diabetes, a wide variety of medications, lifestyle changes, and alternative remedies can help manage symptoms and improve overall health. Consult your doctor before starting any new treatments, even if you think they’re safe.