Diabetes is a metabolic disorder marked with increased glucose (sugar) levels in the blood. Diabetes can occur either due to the inability of the pancreas to make insulin (a hormone required to balance out glucose levels in the blood) or due to the inability of the body to absorb insulin.
Due to high blood glucose levels in the blood, people with diabetes experience greater loss of fluid from the body, which makes their skin prone to dryness and various other problems. These skin conditions can also indicate the complications associated with diabetes.
What skin problems can be experienced by people with diabetes?
There are certain skin conditions that are prevalent in people with diabetes, which include:
- Darkening of skin: Medically called acanthosis nigricans, darkening and thickening of the skin of the neck, armpits, and groin area is a problem commonly seen in diabetics. The skin may also appear raised and dark tan in colour.
- Painless patches on the skin: Diabetes can affect the blood supply to the skin resulting in skin condition such as diabetic dermopathy, which appears as painless scaly light brown-red coloured patches usually seen on the front of the legs.
- Stiffening of digits: People with diabetes may experience thickening of the skin on their digits, that is the toes, fingers, and hands, which is medically called digital sclerosis. This condition can make the fingers stiff, thick, waxy and difficult to move. It can also be seen on the forearms, upper arms, upper back, shoulders, and neck.
- Stiffening of neck and back: This condition looks similar to digital sclerosis as the person experiences thickening of the skin. However, the thickening is seen mostly on the back of the neck and upper back and is mostly seen in overweight people with diabetes.
- Red-brown bumps on the skin: This condition is medically called Necrobiosis Lipoidica Diabeticorum, which occurs due to changes in the blood vessels and appears as reddish-brown coloured bumps that turn patchy. The patches can be shiny (wax-like shine) painful and itchy.
- Rashes: People with diabetes may witness ring or arc-shaped rashes on the fingers, hands, and feet, which is medically called disseminated granuloma annulare. These rashes may appear red, red-brown, or skin-coloured.
- Firm yellow bumps on the skin: People with high blood glucose and triglycerides (type of cholesterol) levels may experience firm, yellow, pea-sized bumps on the skin which can be itchy and surrounded by red halos. This is medically called eruptive xanthomatosis and is usually seen on the feet, arms, legs, buttocks, and the backs of the hands.
- Dry and itchy skin: Dry and itchy skin (pruritus) in diabetics can be a sign of a yeast infection or poor blood flow. Mostly, the itching is experienced in the lower legs and feet but can be experienced on any other parts of the body as well.
- Blisters: Diabetic blisters can resemble burn blisters and are usually seen on the fingers, hands, feet, legs and forearms. These blisters are usually painless, large in size and heal on their own without leaving a scar. These blisters can be a sign of diabetic neuropathy (nerve pain).
How can people with diabetes take better care of their skin?
Keeping sugar levels under control is the primary thing that can help in maintaining skin health and preventing skin-related complications of diabetes. A few other tips include:
- Follow the diet, exercise regime and medications as per the advice of the healthcare provider.
- Drink plenty of water as it would help in keeping the skin moist and hydrated.
- Use a mild, moisture-containing soap for bathing and pat dry the body properly as wet skin can act as a site of infection. Do not use products that contain fragrance or dye.
- Thoroughly clean places like underarms, under the breasts, between the legs and between the toes as water can get collected easily in these areas.
- Avoid bubble baths and extremely hot water as it can dry out the skin.
- Apply moisturizer on the entire body after bathing to lock the moisture in. Avoid chapped lips by moisturizing with a lip balm.
- Use a humidifier to add moisture to the room, thus preventing drying of the skin.
- Use a sunscreen with an SPF of or higher than 30 to protect the skin from harmful UV rays.
- Try wearing cotton undergarments as they allow the skin to breathe through it.
- Treat all the wounds and cuts right away using antibacterial ointments, gauze pads, hypoallergenic tape and cleansing wipes. Avoid using iodine and alcohol to clean the cuts as they can be too harsh.
When to seek medical help?
Diabetics with skin complications must consult their doctor if they experience:
- A rash or infection after taking medication or near the site of insulin injection
- A blister, cut or burn that persists for long
- Persistent dry skin
- Pain and discomfort which lasts for more than 2 days
- Persistent fever
- Formation of pus around a wound or a sore
Diabetes can not only affect the large vital organs but also small blood vessels of the body that supply the skin. Skin complications can be prevented by maintaining proper hygiene and keeping blood sugar levels under control. People having diabetes need to be more cautious about their skin health, as a skin-related symptom may be an early sign of an imminent complication.