Type 2 Diabetes: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

By Jennifer Nadel, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
September 21, 2022

Type 2 diabetes is a chronic condition that affects more than 37 million people in the United States, yet 1 out of every 5 do not know they have it. Diabetes can be managed in many different ways, usually with a combination of approaches.

In this article, we’ll discuss diabetes management options like lifestyle changes, medication, and bariatric surgery. We’ll also discuss symptoms, causes, factors that increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, and more.

What is Type 2 Diabetes?

Type 2 diabetes, also known as diabetes mellitus or shortened to T2D, is a metabolic condition that involves insulin resistance and high glucose levels. Insulin is a hormone that is made in the pancreas. It draws glucose, the sugar, and carbs that you get from foods, into cells for energy.

If the body becomes resistant to insulin, too much sugar remains in circulation, leading to high glucose levels. As glucose levels remain too high over time, blood vessels, normal blood circulation, and organs can stop working as they should. Other parts of the body, like the immune system, can become less effective when too much blood sugar is present.

On its own, type 2 diabetes increases mortality. It was the 9th leading cause of death in 2019. But diabetes can also lead to additional chronic conditions or health problems, such as doubling or tripling the risk of heart attack and stroke. It is also the primary cause of kidney failure.

Type 2 diabetes can be managed with lifestyle, medication, and other treatment options.  It can be treated so that it does not continue to worsen overall health.

Did you know you can manage type 2 diabetes using K Health?
Get started

Symptoms

The most common symptoms of type 2 diabetes are:

Type 2 diabetes does not happen suddenly. It slowly develops over time, sometimes years, and is usually preceded by prediabetes. If you have a routine wellness checkup or other basic lab work, a doctor could tell you that your insulin or glucose are out of range, but not high enough to indicate diabetes. This is usually referred to as prediabetes and may include metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome includes at least three of the following:

  • Elevated fasting blood glucose of 100 mg/dL or higher
  • Elevated triglycerides of 150 mg/dL or higher
  • HDL cholesterol of 40 mg/dL or lower in persons assigned male at birth
  • HDL cholesterol of 50 mg/dL or lower in persons assigned female at birth
  • A waist circumference of 40 inches or greater in persons assigned male at birth
  • A waist circumference of 35 inches or greater in persons assigned female at birth
  • Blood pressure values of 130/85 mmHg or higher

Causes

Type 2 diabetes can occur at any age, but is most often diagnosed in adults. The primary causes include:

  • Overweight or obesity
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Insulin resistance

These factors can be worsened by certain factors. Abdominal fat can worsen the likelihood of insulin resistance. A diet that is high in refined carbohydrates and added sugars while being low in fiber from vegetables, fruits, and whole grains may also increase the risk of having glucose problems.

Risk Factors

While anyone can develop type 2 diabetes, certain factors can increase the risk.

  • Age 45 or older
  • Family history of type 2 diabetes
  • Overweight or obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • History of gestational diabetes
  • Prediabetes
  • Genetics

Certain racial groups also have a higher incidence of type 2 diabetes:

  • African Americans
  • Alaska Natives
  • American Indians
  • Asian Americans
  • Hispanics/Latinos
  • Native Hawaiians
  • Pacific Islanders

Treatment for Type 2 Diabetes

With the right approach, type 2 diabetes can be effectively managed. In some cases, all symptoms can be reversed, although it cannot be cured.

Treatment plans involve careful monitoring and management of blood sugar levels. This usually requires daily monitoring, sometimes first thing in the morning, after meals, and before bedtime. A medical provider will tell you how often to monitor blood glucose at home and the range you should aim to be in.

To control blood glucose, healthcare providers may prescribe medications, recommend bariatric surgery for individuals who meet the criteria, and discuss many lifestyle changes that can help control diabetes.

Medications

For some people, type 2 diabetes can be managed with lifestyle alone. For many, medications are helpful or necessary to maintain blood glucose levels.

Common medications used to treat type 2 diabetes are:

  • Metformin (Glucophage, Fortamet, others)
  • Sulfonylureas (Glucotrol, Glyburide, others)
  • Meglitinides (Starlix, Prandin, others)
  • Thiazolidinediones (Avandia, Actos, others)
  • Dipeptidyl peptidase 4 (DPP-4) inhibitors (Janumet XR, Onglyza, others)
  • Glucagon-like peptide-1 agonists (Trulicity, Saxenda, others)
  • Sodium-glucose Cotransporter-2 (SGLT2) inhibitors (Invokana, Farxiga, others)

Medications to treat diabetes often come with side effects. In most cases, they may resolve as the body gets used to the treatment. Medical providers may try more than one prescription before settling on the best treatment for you.

In addition to treating glucose and insulin, some people who have diabetes may also require medication for cholesterol, blood pressure, or other health conditions. People who have type 2 diabetes do not typically require daily insulin.

Surgery

For some people, weight loss surgery can treat type 2 diabetes by improving insulin response. Overweight and obesity are two primary risk factors for diabetes, and in some cases, exercise, diet, and lifestyle changes alone are not effective.

Bariatric surgery is usually a laparoscopic procedure that only requires small incisions. Some common criteria for surgery may include the following, but discuss with your doctor if you think you may be interested in surgery:

  • Be more than 100 pounds overweight
  • Have a body mass index (BMI) greater than 40 or greater than 35 with negative health effects or inability to maintain normal fasting blood glucose levels
  • Be unable to sustain weight loss with medically-supervised diet and lifestyle

Lifestyle Changes

Type 2 diabetes often responds well to lifestyle changes, either alone or in combination with medication.

A medical provider may suggest the following dietary and lifestyle support:

  • Eating regular meals that are balanced with carbohydrates
  • Managing carbohydrate intake using the glycemic index or glycemic load
  • Eating foods higher in fiber like whole grains, vegetables, and fruits
  • Limiting or avoiding trans fats, saturated fat, refined carbohydrates, and added sugars
  • Getting 30 minutes of moderate-intensity daily exercise
  • Focusing on losing weight
  • Staying hydrated
  • Managing stress
  • Getting enough high-quality sleep

Prevention

Type 2 diabetes cannot always be prevented. But many lifestyle factors can delay or prevent its onset.

  • A diet rich in fiber and antioxidants
  • Regular daily exercise or 150 minutes of physical activity per week
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

Complications

Type 2 diabetes can be managed to avoid complications. But if it is not controlled, it can lead to health problems.

  • Skin problems
  • Bacterial infections
  • Fungal infections
  • Nerve damage (neuropathy)
  • Poor circulation
  • Slow wound healing
  • Eye damage or vision problems
  • Hearing problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Erectile dysfunction
Did you know you can manage type 2 diabetes using K Health?
Get started

When to See a Medical Provider

If you have a family history of diabetes or have overweight or obesity, it is important to maintain routine wellness checks. Preventing diabetes is easier than treating it.

See a medical provider if you think you may have diabetes or are concerned about prevention. They can help you establish a healthy lifestyle. If you are diagnosed with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, they can prescribe medications to help control glucose levels.

If you take medication for diabetes, it is important to follow prescription instructions and maintain a healthy eating and exercise plan.

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can have a primary care doctor online?

Check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed, text with a healthcare provider in minutes through K Health. 

K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and is based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does type 2 diabetes mean?
Type 2 diabetes is when blood glucose levels are too high because the body is not sensitive to insulin. Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas that draws blood sugar into cells. When the body does not respond to insulin, the sugar stays in the bloodstream, leading to complications.
What causes type 2 diabetes?
Type 2 diabetes is primarily caused by overweight, obesity, and lack of physical activity. People with a history of gestational diabetes may also be at increased risk for type 2 diabetes.
Is type 2 diabetes serious?
Type 2 diabetes can have serious effects on health if left untreated. It is the leading cause of kidney damage and doubles or triples the risk of heart disease and stroke. It can be effectively managed with diet, exercise, weight loss, medication, or surgery.
Can type 2 diabetes be cured?
There is no cure for type 2 diabetes, but it can be managed or reversed with medication, lifestyle, and other treatments.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

Jennifer Nadel, MD

Dr. Jennifer Nadel is a board certified emergency medicine physician and received her medical degree from the George Washington University School of Medicine. She has worked in varied practice environments, including academic urban level-one trauma centers, community hospital emergency departments, skilled nursing facilities, telemedicine, EMS medical control, and flight medicine.

K Health logo (used on certain page templates)