Diabetes can look and feel different for women. Identifying and treating the unique symptoms and risks of women with diabetes may lead to a better quality of life.
Diabetes is a group of metabolic diseases in which a person has high levels of blood glucose — also known as blood sugar — due to problems making or using the hormone insulin. Your body needs insulin to make and use energy from the carbohydrates you consume.
There are three common types:
- Type 1 diabetes: Your body can’t make insulin due to autoimmune dysfunction.
- Type 2 diabetes: This is the most common and occurs when your body is unable to properly use insulin.
- Gestational diabetes: This is caused by pregnancy.
Diabetes can affect people with any lifestyle and of any age, race, ethnic group, sex, or gender. The condition can often have more serious effects on women when compared to men.
- 13% greater risk of death from all causes
- 30% greater risk of death from cardiovascular disease
- 58% greater risk of death from coronary heart disease
Read on to learn more about diabetes in women.
We use “women” and “men” in this article to reflect the terms that have been historically used to gender people. However, your gender identity may not align with how your body may respond to diabetes.
A doctor can better help you understand your risk for diabetes and how to manage certain symptoms or complications if you develop the condition.
Women and men with diabetes may experience many of the same symptoms.
However, some symptoms are unique to women. Understanding these symptoms may help you identify diabetes and get treatment for it early.
Hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar levels, can trigger the growth of fungus.
An overgrowth of yeast caused by the Candida fungus can result in vaginal or oral yeast infections. These common infections are also known as thrush.
When an infection develops in the vaginal area, symptoms can include:
Oral yeast infections often cause a white coating on the tongue and inside the mouth.
Urinary tract infections (UTIs)
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) develop when bacteria enter the urinary tract.
The risk is higher in women who have diabetes. UTIs are common in this group mainly because hyperglycemia compromises the immune system.
UTIs can cause:
- painful urination
- a burning sensation during urination
- bloody or cloudy urine
There’s a risk of kidney infection if these symptoms aren’t treated.
Diabetic neuropathy occurs when high blood sugar levels damage your nerve fibers. This damage can trigger tingling and loss of feeling in different parts of the body, including the:
Diabetic neuropathy may also affect sensation in the vaginal area, leading to symptoms like vaginal dryness.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
Experts don’t know the exact cause of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
It can occur when a woman produces a high amount of androgens (male hormones) and has certain risk factors, such as a family history of PCOS. In one study, researchers found that the main androgens involved in PCOS are testosterone and androstenedione.
Symptoms of PCOS include:
PCOS is also associated with a type of insulin resistance that elevates blood sugar levels and increases your risk of developing diabetes. Insulin resistance may be either a symptom or a cause of PCOS.
The following symptoms can potentially affect anyone with diabetes:
- increased thirst and hunger
- frequent urination
- weight loss or weight gain with no obvious cause
- blurry vision
- wounds that heal slowly
- skin infections
- acanthosis nigricans, or patches of darker skin at the armpits, groin, and back of the neck
- breath that has a sweet, fruity, or acetone-like odor
- reduced feeling in the hands or feet
However, keep in mind that many people with type 2 diabetes have no noticeable symptoms at all.
Type 1 diabetes typically starts during childhood. Type 2 diabetes typically starts in adulthood. If you have one of these conditions before you’re pregnant, it’s known as pregestational diabetes.
You may wonder if pregnancy is safe if you have pregestational diabetes.
You can certainly have a healthy pregnancy after getting a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes. However, it’s important to manage your condition before and during pregnancy to avoid complications.
Your blood sugar levels and general health need to be tracked before and during pregnancy. Talk with your doctor about the best ways to manage your and your baby’s health.
If you’re planning to get pregnant, it’s best to get your blood sugar levels as close to your target range as possible beforehand. Your target blood sugar ranges when pregnant may be different from the ranges when you’re not pregnant.
When you’re pregnant, blood sugar and ketones travel through the placenta to the baby. Babies require energy from sugar just like you do, but they’re at risk for congenital abnormalities if your blood sugar levels are too high.
Transferring high blood sugar to unborn babies puts them at risk for:
- premature birth
- cognitive impairments
- developmental delays
Gestational diabetes occurs when people begin to have high blood sugar during pregnancy. It’s different from type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
Gestational diabetes affects almost 10% of pregnancies in the United States, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA).
Pregnancy hormones interfere with the way insulin works, causing the body to make more insulin. For some people, this still isn’t enough insulin, and they develop gestational diabetes.
Gestational diabetes often develops later in pregnancy. Your doctor may test you for it
If you’ve had gestational diabetes, your risk for type 2 diabetes increases. Your doctor may recommend diabetes and prediabetes testing every few years.
Most people with type 1 diabetes develop the condition in childhood. Risk factors include having a parent or sibling with the condition. Coming from a cold climate may also raise your risk.
In the United States, people who are white are more likely to develop type 1 diabetes than African American, Hispanic, or Latino people, according to the
According to the Department of Health and Human Services’s
- are at least 45 years old
- have overweight or obesity
- have a parent or sibling with diabetes
- are African American, Hispanic, Asian American, American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander
- have had a baby with a birth weight of at least 9 pounds (4.08 kilograms)
- have had gestational diabetes
- have high blood pressure
- have high cholesterol
- are physically active fewer than three times a week
- have PCOS
- have a history of heart disease or stroke
Possible factors may include but aren’t limited to:
- biological risk factors, such as weight status and the location of fat deposits on the body
- lack of access to healthcare
- inequities in healthcare
- socioeconomic status or other social determinants of health
- cultural attitudes and behaviors toward diabetes prevention
Diabetes by the numbers
According to the
The International Diabetes Federation provides global prevalence estimates, among other statistics, in its Diabetes Atlas. In 2021, it predicted that 642.8 million people 20 to 79 years old may have diabetes by 2030. By 2045, 783.7 million people in this age group may have diabetes.
There’s no cure for diabetes. Once you’ve received the diagnosis, you can only manage your symptoms.
Women may experience unique obstacles to managing their blood sugar and diabetes.
For instance, some birth control pills can increase your blood sugar. To maintain a moderate blood sugar level, ask your doctor about switching to a low dose birth control pill.
Other ways to help manage your diabetes are described below.
There’s a variety of medications you can take to manage symptoms and complications.
Many new classes of diabetes medications are available, but the most common medications for those who have recently received a diagnosis include:
- Insulin therapy: Insulin therapy is for all people with type 1 diabetes.
- Metformin: Metformin (Fortamet, Glumetza) lowers your blood sugar levels.
Lifestyle changes can also help you manage diabetes. They include:
- exercising and maintaining a moderate weight
- avoiding smoking cigarettes, if you smoke
- following a balanced eating plan that meets your personal needs and is focused on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- monitoring your blood sugar levels
The ADA’s latest consensus report reviewed hundreds of scientific articles on how nutrition and diet can be used to manage diabetes. Researchers found that everyone’s body responds differently to foods, including carbohydrates, and there’s no single “diabetes diet” that works for all people.
The ADA recommends an individualized approach to eating. This should include working with a registered dietitian to find out what eating plan, macronutrient combination, and food choices make the most sense for your goals.
More conclusive research is needed on the benefits of alternative remedies for people with diabetes.
Alternative remedies that may have a slight benefit for people with diabetes include:
- supplements like chromium and magnesium
- herbs and seeds like buckwheat, sage, and fenugreek seeds
Consult a doctor before trying any new diabetes remedies, even if they’re natural. They may interact with your current treatments or medications.
Diabetes can cause a variety of complications, which include:
- Eating disorders: According to the ADA, some research suggests that eating disorders are more common in women with diabetes than in women without diabetes.
- Coronary heart disease: Many women, even young women, with type 2 diabetes already have heart disease at the time of their diabetes diagnosis.
- Skin conditions: Skin-related complications include bacterial and fungal infections.
- Nerve damage: Nerve damage can lead to pain, impaired circulation, or loss of feeling in the affected limbs.
- Eye damage: Eye damage may lead to vision loss or blindness.
- Foot damage: If foot damage isn’t treated promptly, it can result in amputation.
- Depression: Women with diabetes have a higher risk of depression than men with diabetes and people without diabetes, according to the ADA.
Why diabetes is different for women
There are a few reasons why diabetes affects women differently than it does others:
- Women often receive less aggressive treatment for cardiovascular risk factors and diabetes-related conditions.
- Women often have different kinds of heart disease than men. Diabetes is also more likely to raise a woman’s risk of heart disease than a man’s, according to the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Some diabetes complications are more difficult to diagnose in women.
- Hormones and inflammation act differently in women.
Diabetes is the
There’s no exact standard or metric that can confirm how long you may live with the condition.
A 2015 study comparing the outlook for women and men with type 1 diabetes found that women were
Between January and March 2020, there were 23.1 female deaths from diabetes for every 100,000 female people with the condition in the United States. By the end of the period between October and December 2021, this figure rose to 26.7 female deaths from diabetes for every 100,000 with the condition.
However, it’s possible to lead a long and healthy life with diabetes.
There are a variety of medications, lifestyle changes, and alternative remedies that may help you manage your symptoms and improve your overall health.
If you have diabetes and are interested in exploring new treatments, talk with your doctor first, even if you think they’re safe.