Did you know that your skin is your body’s largest organ? Adults carry 8 pounds and 22 square feet of it.
That’s a lot of real estate to protect. But if you have diabetes (and even if you don’t), protect it you must.
Diabetes affects many areas of your body, and your skin is no exception. When blood glucose levels get too high, you may experience a wide range of skin problems — including dryness, bumps, growths, sores, itchiness and infections, among others.
In fact, experiencing problems with your skin could be a sign that you need to adjust your diabetes management plan. Sometimes skin issues are among the first changes people notice when they’ve yet to discover they are living with diabetes.
Here are some of the most common skin problems people with diabetes experience, and what to do to prevent and treat them.
When blood glucose levels rise, the body loses fluids, making skin dry. Neuropathy can also cause dry skin because the nerves in the legs and feet may fail to get the message to sweat. Not only is dry skin itchy and annoying, it can be dangerous for people with diabetes if it cracks and gets infected, particularly if there are damaged nerves that prevent you from noticing the condition.
What to Do
Moisturizing daily is one of the easiest ways to prevent dry skin, but there are other steps you can take as well.
• Drink lots of fluids, particularly water.
• Avoid very hot baths and showers.
• Avoid soaps and shampoos with lots of chemicals. Wash with a mild soap, then rinse and dry thoroughly.
• Pat your skin dry. Do not rub it. Be sure to dry the areas where water may collect, such as under your arms, under and between your breast and between your toes.
• Eat foods rick in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, sardines, walnuts, flaxseed oil and other oils. This will help to keep your skin nourished.
• Maintain blood glucose levels as close to normal as possible.
• When the temperature drops and you turn on the heat, use a humidifier to add moisture to the air in your home.
• Wear gloves and warm shoes or boots in winter.
• Use a lip balm to avoid dry, chapped lips.
You may develop blisters, sores or bumps on your skin that can get infected. Cuts can also be easily infected if you don’t clean and treat them, or don’t notice them due to nerve damage. If your skin does become infected, you may notice that it gets hot or swollen, develops blisters or a discharge. Infections can also be painful.
What to Do
• Inspect your body daily for any changes to your skin, such as bumps, blisters, red spots, cuts or sores that could get infected.
• Have your healthcare provider inspect your feet.
• Keep blood glucose levels as close to normal as possible.
• Treat cuts immediately.
• If your skin does get infected, see your provider immediately.
OPEN SORES AND WOUNDS
Prolonged periods of high blood glucose can lead to poor circulation and nerve damage. This is one reason it’s so important to keep good control of your diabetes. Poor circulation and poor glucose control make it harder for the body to heal wounds, especially on the feet, and may lead to diabetic ulcers.
What to Do
• Check for cuts or wounds on a daily basis. If you have nerve damage, you may not feel any pain, and minor cuts may go unnoticed.
• Seek immediate medical care for any open sores or wounds.
• Talk to your provider about how to better control blood glucose levels if you are having this problem.
SHIN SPOTS (DIABETIC DERMOPATHY)
People with diabetes may notice spots and lines that form a slight depression in the skin, often on the shins but sometimes on the arms, thighs, trunk or other areas of the body. This is called diabetic dermopathy. These brown spots may fade or stay on the skin indefinitely without any other symptoms.
What to Do
While diabetic dermopathy is harmless, it may be a sign that blood glucose levels are too high. See your provider for an A1C test and to determine if you need to take steps to better manage your diabetes.
REDDISH-YELLOW BUMPS ON THE SKIN (ERUPTIVE XANTHOMATOSIS)
Patches of bumps that look like small pimples, but develop a reddish-yellow color, may erupt on the buttocks, thighs, crooks of the elbow, backs of the knees or elsewhere on the body. They can be tender or itchy.
What to Do
Eruptive xanthomatosis is a sign that your diabetes is not under control, and blood glucose levels have risen too high. See your provider to discuss how to bring levels back under control.
Like everyone, people with diabetes should apply sunscreen before going outside. Research has shown that using sunscreen daily also slows the effects of aging on the skin, so there’s an added bonus to protecting your skin for the sun’s rays.
In addition to using sunscreen and moisturizer, you should always keep a first-aid kit on hand (at home and when you travel) that contains antibacterial ointment, gauze pads, prepackaged cleansing towelettes and hypoallergenic tape to care for any blisters, sores or wounds that may occur.
Be sure to contact your provider in case of major cuts, burns or infections, skin changes that don’t go away or rashes that develop.