Diabetes can affect every part of the human body, including the skin. Experts say that at least one-third of diabetic patients, in their lifetime, will have to deal with some kind of skin infection or the other. Such skin problems are sometimes the first sign that an individual has diabetes. Most of these skin conditions can be prevented or treated if diagnosed early.
Some of these skin problems (like bacterial infections) are conditions anyone can have, but people suffering from diabetes may acquire these more easily. Other skin problems happen to people with diabetes. These include necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum, diabetic dermopathy, and diabetic blisters.
How Diabetes Affects Skin
Diabetes can have an impact on the skin in several ways. High blood glucose levels or hyperglycaemia cause most skin problems. Excess sugar in the blood prompts the body to pull fluid from cells to produce enough urine to eliminate the sugar, which makes skin dry (xerosis).
Dry, red, and irritated skin can result from damaged nerves, particularly those in the legs and feet. Damaged nerves may not get the message to perspire, and perspiration helps keep the skin moist and soft.
In turn, when the skin is overly dry, it can crack, peel and become itchy. Scratching can create small openings. These openings provide easy access for infectious organisms to get under the skin, where excess sugar in the blood provides a fertile breeding ground for them to proliferate.
Common Skin Conditions Linked to Diabetes
Itching skin, or pruritus, can have several causes, such as dry skin, poor blood flow, or a yeast infection. When itching is caused by poor blood flow, you will feel it in your feet and/or lower legs. Lotion can keep the skin moist, preventing itching due to dry skin.
Bacterial infections: Staphylococcus skin infections are more serious and common in individuals with uncontrolled or poorly controlled diabetes. When hair follicles are irritated, the bacteria can cause inflamed bumps or boils.
Other infections also include:
- Nail infections
- Carbuncles (deep skin and tissue infection)
Vitiligo: This condition affects skin colour. It’s more common in those suffering from type 1 diabetes. With vitiligo, the cells that make melanin, the substance that gives your skin colour, are destroyed. Patches of skin start looking discolored. They appear on the chest and stomach. But they can also show up on the face around the nose, mouth and eyes.
Shin spots (diabetic dermopathy): This condition happens due to changes caused in the blood vessels present in your skin. Dermopathy appears as an oval or shiny round lesion on the skin of your shins. The patches don’t hurt and rarely cause an itching sensation.
Necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum:
Another disease that may be caused by changes in blood vessels is necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum (NLD). NLD causes spots similar to diabetic dermopathy, but they are fewer, larger, and deeper.
NLD is a rare condition that commonly begins as a red, raised area. After a while, it looks like a scar with a violet border and blood vessels beneath the skin may become easier to see. Sometimes NLD spots can crack open and may become itchy and painful. As long as the sores do not break open, you need not worry too much. But if the sores open up, see a doctor.
Diabetic blisters (bullosis diabeticorum):
Rarely, patients suffering from diabetes erupt in blisters. Diabetic blisters can occur on the hands, feet, back of the fingers and sometimes on the forearms or legs. The sores look like burn blisters and are common in people who suffer from diabetic neuropathy. The only treatment is to keep blood sugar levels in control.
Eruptive xanthomatosis is another condition caused by diabetes identified by yellow, pea-like enlargements on the skin, on the backs of hands, feet, arms and legs. The disorder generally occurs in young men with type 1 diabetes. The person often has high levels of cholesterol and fat in the blood. Like diabetic blisters, these bumps may disappear when diabetes is in control.
Care of Your Skin When You Have Diabetes
To prevent skin problems and facilitate early treatment of problems that develop:
- Thoroughly inspect your skin, especially on your feet, between your toes, and around the finger and toenails. Keep a check for redness, scrapes, cuts, calluses or blisters
- Keep your skin folds — such as the area under your breasts or your groin — dry. Moist areas increase the risk of infection
- Dry the area in-between your toes after bathing
- Use soap only when needed and choose the one that has a moisturizer. Avoid using deodorant soaps, which may dry your skin
- If your skin is dry, do not go for bubble baths. Try using a bath oil instead
When to Call a Doctor
When you have diabetes, your skin needs special attention. Beyond a daily skin care routine, call or visit your doctor right away if you:
- Don’t see an improvement the day after treating a minor problem, like a cut
- Have discomfort or pain that lasts for more than two days
- Have a temperature
- Notice any pus near the wound