Many of the risks of diabetes are the same between both sexes, but there are some differences.
Around one in every nine women in the United States has diabetes.
This article explores the effects and difference of treating diabetes in women, as well as gestational diabetes, a type of diabetes that only occurs during pregnancy.
Effects of diabetes in women
Some symptoms of diabetes are unique to women.
While men and women share many symptoms of diabetes, there are a few effects of the condition that occur only in women.
Oral and vaginal thrush: The first is the occurrence of yeast infections, or thrush, in the mouth and vagina. Increased levels of sugar in the blood create an ideal breeding ground for the Candida fungus that causes the condition.
- sore skin in the area of infection
- vaginal discharge
- itchy sensations
- dyspareunia, or painful sex
- a white coating on the tongue, if the fungus infects the mouth
Urinary tract infections (UTIs): Diabetes increases the risk of UTIs. In a 2015 review, the researchers advised that 12.9 percent of women in their sample group develop a UTI within the first year of receiving a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, as opposed to only 3.9 percent of men.
In diabetes, high blood glucose can compromise the immune system, leading to an increased risk of infection.
Symptoms of a UTI include:
- painful, burning urination
- cloudy urine
- blood in the urine
Sexual dysfunction: One condition that branches from diabetes is diabetic neuropathy, which occurs when increased glucose levels in the blood lead to nerve fiber damage.
This can lead to reduced sensations in the hands, feet, and legs, as well as altering sexual experiences in the vagina. This condition can, therefore, reduce sex drive.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS): One insulin-related condition unique to women is PCOS. In this condition, the ovaries become enlarged and unable to release eggs properly. Insulin is the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels.
While this is more of a predisposition to diabetes in women than a symptom, as PCOS might link to increased insulin resistance, it still triggers a range of unique symptoms that could indicate the approaching onset of diabetes, including:
According to the National Institutes of Heath (NIH), close to one-third of adults with diabetes do not know they have the disease.
All adults of both sexes should receive regular screening once they are over the age of 45 years, and at a younger age if they are overweight or obese, or if have one of the risk factors listed above.
Diseases of the heart and blood vessels are key complications that result from diabetes. Over time, high blood sugar levels cause damage to blood vessels and nerves.
High blood sugar levels lead to inflammation in blood vessels which gradually causes vessels to become stiffer. When this happens, blood does not flow through them as well as before.
Impaired blood flow to the various parts of the body can lead to several further problems such as:
Diabetes can also damage nerves in the body, which can lead to many complications. Nerve damage and circulation issues can cause problems in the extremities. If severe, these issues may lead to amputations.
The condition also leads to an increased risk of other diseases, problems during pregnancy, loss of mobility with aging, and depression.
Gestational diabetes occurs in some women during pregnancy.
Gestational diabetes is a temporary condition that occurs in some women during pregnancy and increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes later on in life.
This type of diabetes is often symptomless. This makes testing during pregnancy extremely important.
Any woman who is pregnant can develop gestational diabetes, but some are at greater risk than others. Women are more likely to get gestational diabetes if they:
- are overweight before becoming pregnant
- have prediabetes, a condition in which blood sugar levels are high, but not high enough for a diagnosis of diabetes
- have a family history of diabetes
- have previously had gestational diabetes
- have delivered an infant larger than 9 pounds or had an unexplained stillbirth in the past
Symptoms of diabetes
The most common signs and symptoms of high blood sugar levels include the following:
- increased thirst
- frequent urination
- extreme tiredness
- increased hunger
- unexplained weight loss, even when increasing food intake
- extreme lack of energy
- blurred vision
- frequent or recurring infections, such as an infection of the gum, skin, or vagina
- cuts and bruises that are slow to heal
- sexual difficulties
People who have any of these symptoms should see a doctor right away. Early detection and treatment lower the risk of developing complications such as heart disease.
How do diabetes symptoms differ according to age?
The risk of developing type 2 diabetes increases with age, and the disease becomes more common in people over age 45 years. Regular diabetes screening is recommended from this age onwards.
Recent studies show people that develop diabetes earlier in life experience more severe complications at a later age when compared with people who develop the disease once they are older.
This is most likely because complications take many years to develop. Effective blood sugar control and healthy lifestyle habits can help reduce the risk of complications for everyone with diabetes.
Pregnancy and the menopause
Diabetes can have an impact on two major stages in female sexual development.
Women who have diabetes before becoming pregnant have various challenges to ensure a safe pregnancy.
Keeping blood sugar levels under control before getting pregnant is vital. High blood sugar levels can harm the fetus and cause congenital anomalies. This is especially true during the early stages of development when women might still be unaware of the pregnancy.
Both types of diabetes increase the risk of complications during pregnancy. Pregnant women should work closely with their healthcare team to discuss meals, a safe exercise plan, and how often to test blood sugar.
Women should find out any necessary changes to regular medication during pregnancy.
Menopause and the years leading up to it cause a variety of changes in the female body that can trigger diabetes or make it worse.
Hormonal changes alter how cells respond to insulin. Blood sugar levels might become less predictable and require more frequent monitoring.
Menopause leads to a drop in estrogen levels as the ovaries cease to produce eggs. As a result, these can lead to more UTIs and vaginal infections in women with diabetes.
Many women experience weight gain during menopause. Women with diabetes may need to change their insulin doses or oral diabetes medications to adapt to these changes.
Risk factors for women
The risk factors for developing diabetes in women include:
- a history of gestational diabetes during a past pregnancy
- giving birth to a baby weighing more than 9 pounds (lb)
- a history of PCOS
A doctor can order blood tests to confirm whether or not someone has diabetes. If their blood sugar is unusually high, and they have several classic symptoms, their doctor might order only one test.
Often, however, a doctor will carry out tests on two different days to confirm the diagnosis.
Is diabetes treatment any different for women?
The only difference is that women of childbearing age need to consider the side effects of any treatment that could have an effect on a developing fetus.Suzanne Falck, MD, FACP Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.