Information to the Public
Living with Diabetes: The Basics

What is diabetes?

Diabetes occurs when a person's body doesn't make enough insulin or doesn't use insulin the right way. Insulin helps your cells convert blood sugar (also called glucose) into energy. Diabetes causes the sugar to build up in your blood.

Diabetes can generally be classified as type 1 or type 2. If you have type 1 diabetes, your body makes little or no insulin. If you have type 2 diabetes, your body makes some insulin but can't use it properly or doesn't make enough to control your blood sugar level. Most adults who have diabetes have type 2 diabetes.

What health problems can diabetes cause?

Over time, high blood sugar levels can damage your eyes, blood vessels, nerves and kidneys. Damage to your nerves can lead to foot sores, problems with digestion and impotence. Damage to your blood vessels increases your risk of heart attack and stroke. Many of these problems can be delayed or prevented with treatment.

How is diabetes treated?

The goal of diabetes treatment is to keep your blood sugar level as close to normal as possible--not too high (called hyperglycemia) or too low (called hypoglycemia).

The first step is to have a healthy diet and to exercise. This may mean you’ll need to change your diet and exercise habits. You’ll also have to watch your weight, or even lose weight, to keep your blood sugar level as normal as possible. Your doctor will talk to you about the kinds of food you should eat and how much exercise you’ll need every week.

Regularly checking your blood sugar is a key to helping you control it. Blood sugar checks can help you see how food, exercise and insulin or medicine affects your level. Checking your blood sugar also allows you and your doctor to change your treatment plan if needed.

Sometimes diet and exercise alone can’t keep your blood sugar at a normal level. Then your doctor will talk to you about other treatments, such as medicine or insulin.

Call on your doctor if:

  • You start feeling very thirsty and are urinating more often than usual.
  • You are nauseous or vomit more than once.
  • You lose a significant amount of weight.
  • You start breathing deeper and faster.
  • Your breath smells like nail polish remover.
  • You start to tremble, feel weak and drowsy, and then feel confused or dizzy, or your vision becomes blurred.
  • You feel uncoordinated.
  • You have a sore, blister or wound (especially on your feet) that won't heal.


How do I check my blood sugar level?

Follow your doctor's advice and the instructions that come with the glucose meter. In general, you will follow the steps below. Different meters work differently, so be sure to check with your doctor for advice specifically for you.

  1. Wash your hands and dry them well before doing the test.
  2. Use an alcohol pad to clean the area that you're going to prick. For most glucose meters, you will prick your fingertip. However, with some meters, you can also use your forearm, thigh or the fleshy part of your hand. Ask your doctor what area you should use with your meter.
  3. Prick yourself with a sterile lancet to get a drop of blood. (If you prick your fingertip, it may be easier and less painful to prick it on one side, not on the pad.)
  4. Place the drop of blood on the test strip.
  5. Follow the instructions for inserting the test strip into your glucose meter.
  6. The meter will give you a number for your blood sugar level.

Tips on blood sugar testing

  • Pay attention to expiration dates for test strips.
  • Use a big enough drop of blood.
  • Be sure your meter is set right.
  • Keep your meter clean.
  • Check the batteries of your meter.
  • Follow the instructions for the test carefully.
  • Write down the results and show them to your doctor.


How often should I check my blood sugar level?

Check your blood sugar as often as your doctor suggests. You'll probably need to do it more often at first. You'll also check it more often when you feel sick or stressed, when you're changing your medicine or if you're pregnant. People taking insulin may need to check their levels more often.

Keep track of your blood sugar levels by writing them down. You can also keep track of what you've eaten and how active you've been during the day. This will help you see how food and exercise affect your blood sugar level.

What should my blood sugar level be?

Talk with your doctor about what range of blood sugar levels is best for you. A level of 80 to 120 before meals is often a good goal, but not everyone with diabetes can get their blood sugar level this low.

Be sure to talk with your doctor about what to do if your blood sugar level isn't within the range that's best for you.

How does food affect my blood sugar level?

Anytime you eat, you put sugar in your blood. Eating the right way can help control your blood sugar level.

It's important for you to learn how what you eat affects your blood sugar level, how you feel and your overall health. As a general rule, just following a healthy diet is wise. Your doctor may suggest you meet with a dietitian who can teach you how to make wise food choices. See the box below for some tips on eating right.

Tips on eating right

  • Eat at about the same time every day. This helps keep your insulin or medicine and sugar levels steady.
  • Try to eat 3 times a day. Have a snack at bedtime if you're taking medicine or insulin. Avoid other snacking unless you're exercising or treating hypoglycemia.
  • If you're overweight, lose weight. Even losing just a little weight, such as 5 to 15 pounds, can lower your blood sugar levels.
  • Eat plenty of fiber. Green leafy vegetables, grains and fruits are good choices. Fiber helps you feel full and helps with digestion.
  • Eat fewer "empty" calories, such as foods high in sugar and fat, and alcohol.


What about smoking and alcohol?

You should stop smoking as soon as possible. It's probably okay to drink some alcohol. But it's best not to have more than about 1 serving a day with a meal. A serving is 4 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. If you drink on an empty stomach, you risk causing a drop in your blood sugar. Talk with your doctor about how much alcohol is safe for you to consume with your diabetes.

Will exercising help my blood sugar level?

Yes. Exercising is especially good for people who have diabetes because it can help the body better use insulin, resulting in a lower blood sugar level.

Exercise is also good for your heart, your cholesterol levels, your blood pressure and your weight--all factors that can affect your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Exercise also seems to make people feel better about themselves and feel less anxious.

Talk with your doctor about starting an exercise program. He or she can help you make a plan.

What is a glycosylated hemoglobin test?

The glycosylated hemoglobin test is a blood test your doctor may do. One common type of glycosylated hemoglobin is hemoglobin A1C. The hemoglobin A1c level shows how well your blood sugar has been controlled during the previous 1 to 3 months. It helps your doctor see how effective your current method of treatment is and decide if any changes are needed.