Uncontrolled Diabetes: Symptoms, Causes, and Risks

By Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
September 8, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • If you have diabetes and don’t follow your treatment protocol, your diabetes can get out of control.
  • Having consistently high blood sugar levels can cause symptoms such as frequent thirst, frequent urination, infections, numbness and tingling, and blurry vision.
  • Over time, uncontrolled diabetes can lead to serious complications such as kidney disease, vision loss, and nerve and blood vessel damage.

Diabetes is one of the most common health conditions in the U.S., affecting about 9% of the population. If you’re diagnosed with diabetes, your provider will likely suggest treatment options to help manage your condition. However, if you don’t or cannot follow the treatment protocol, your diabetes can worsen. This is known as uncontrolled diabetes.

In this article, I’ll explain what uncontrolled diabetes is as well as its associated symptoms and possible health complications. I’ll also discuss various treatment options.

What Is Uncontrolled Diabetes?

If you have diabetes, following your provider’s recommended treatment plan is incredibly important. Medications and lifestyle changes help to keep your blood glucose, or blood sugar, at a safe level. Without these treatment methods, you risk dangerously high blood glucose. This can cause various symptoms and serious health complications affecting your vision, circulation, hearing, organs, and more.

Some people disregard their worsening symptoms because they think diabetes is a chronic condition that gradually becomes worse and worse. However, this is not always the case. If you recognize symptoms of uncontrolled diabetes, contact your provider, because early intervention can prevent long-term damage.

Manage diabetes with K Health right from home.
Get started

Symptoms of Uncontrolled Diabetes

There are a wide variety of uncontrolled diabetes symptoms. If you have diabetes and notice any of the following, call your provider.

Hyperglycemia

Hyperglycemia, also known as high blood sugar, is a hallmark of diabetes.

It can cause:

  • Fruity smelling breath
  • Skin that lacks tension
  • Extreme thirst
  • Excessive urination

Foot infections

When you have diabetes for a long period, it can cause circulation problems and nerve damage. Peripheral nerve damage is particularly common and affects the extremities, including the feet. Your feet can develop infections and sores and may heal slowly.

You might also experience:

  • Numbness
  • Weakness
  • Pain
  • Increased sensitivity
  • Ulcers

Frequent urination

Polyuria, or frequent urination, is a common symptom of high blood glucose. The reason this happens is two-fold. 

First, your kidneys may be unable to manage high blood sugar levels, so they excrete glucose into your urine.

Second, along with the glucose, the kidneys filter the blood and pull out excess water. High glucose increases that effect and, because of this, you feel very thirsty. This can make you drink more, causing frequent urination.

Frequent thirst

As discussed above, polydipsia, or excessive thirst, goes hand-in-hand with frequent urination.

Extreme fatigue

Some people experience fatigue because of diabetic ketoacidosis, which I’ll discuss in the next section. You might feel tired, weak, and lethargic.

Diabetic ketoacidosis

Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) usually occurs in type 1 diabetes. It’s caused by inadequate or missed insulin doses and infections. 

When you have DKA, your body’s tissues can’t take glucose from the blood into the cells. This means your body has to use fat as an energy source. The condition can cause:

Constant hunger

Polyphagia, or excessive hunger, is another symptom of diabetes. When your blood sugar is too low, you can feel weak, lightheaded, and tired. This can make you feel very hungry as your body seeks more energy.

However, in uncontrolled diabetes, your blood sugar levels stay abnormally high. A lack of insulin or insulin resistance can make it hard for cells to absorb glucose from the blood. Essentially, this means your body can’t convert food into energy. This causes excessive hunger, as the body is constantly seeking that energy.

Blurry vision

Diabetes frequently causes vision problems. This is typically due to nerve damage that gradually causes vision loss over time. Your eyes may become more sensitive to light, and you may have blurry vision. When left untreated, diabetes can cause blindness.

Weight loss

This symptom is more common in type 1 diabetes and may be a byproduct of DKA. However, if type 2 diabetes goes undetected for a long time, it may cause weight loss. Other causes include nerve damage affecting the stomach and digestive system. These can cause bowel problems, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. Combined, these complications may make you lose weight.

Trouble hearing

Typically, diabetes-related hearing loss happens because of nerve damage. According to the CDC, people with diabetes are twice as likely as those who do not have diabetes to have hearing loss.

If you have uncontrolled diabetes, constantly high blood glucose can damage blood vessels and nerves in the inner ear. Low blood sugar may also cause this.

Circulation problems

In people with uncontrolled diabetes, constantly high blood sugar levels damage the lining of blood vessels. This makes it harder for blood to flow through the vessels properly and can slow blood circulation.

Although you may not notice that you have circulation problems right away, it can cause other more noticeable symptoms like wounds and infections that don’t heal, dry skin, and loss of feeling in your hands and feet.

Increased skin conditions

Circulation problems commonly cause skin conditions. People with diabetes are more likely to have ulcers, hair loss, and dry, sagging skin. You may also develop skin problems if you have infections or open wounds that don’t heal.

Complications of Uncontrolled Type 2 Diabetes

When diabetes is unchecked for long periods, issues like circulation problems can cause serious and long-lasting complications. Diabetes can also weaken your immune system, putting you at a higher risk of complications from other infections and diseases.

Vision loss

Diabetes is one of the leading causes of blindness in the U.S. Over time, high blood glucose damages the blood vessels and nerves in the eye. At first, this may cause blurry vision or sensitivity in your eyes. Left untreated, it can cause blindness.

Nerve damage

Uncontrolled diabetes can cause nerve damage. This can cause a range of issues—from minor numbness and tingling to severe pain—and significantly impact a person’s life. Unfortunately, it is a relatively common complication. According to the CDC, half of those living with diabetes have nerve damage.

If you catch it early, you can manage nerve damage, so contact your provider if you think you may be experiencing nerve damage. Some of the signs include:

  • Burning
  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Loss of feeling
  • Inability to maintain an erection

Kidney disease

High blood glucose levels can cause organ damage. One of the organs commonly affected is the kidneys. 

Your kidneys are responsible for eliminating toxins and excreting them through your urine, so if they aren’t working properly, you can experience serious complications. If they stop working entirely, you may need a transplant or dialysis.

The CDC recommends that people with diabetes get their kidneys checked regularly with blood and urine tests. This can help you identify chronic kidney disease early, which is important because the condition has few symptoms and is hard to detect without testing.

Heart disease

High blood glucose can also damage your heart’s nerves and blood vessels. People with diabetes are also more likely to have other conditions that increase their heart disease risk. Some of these include:

  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • High triglycerides (fat in the blood)

Stroke

Over time, high blood glucose damages the blood vessels. One of the complications of blood vessel damage is stroke. In particular, people with diabetes are at a higher risk of cerebral small vessel disease. This affects the small blood vessels that supply blood to the white matter and deep structures in the brain.

Manage diabetes with K Health right from home.
Get started

Type 2 Diabetes Treatment Options

If you have type 2 diabetes, your provider will likely recommend a treatment plan of medications and lifestyle changes. They might prescribe metformin, one of the most common drugs used to manage blood sugar, or another medication. In some cases, you may need a combination of multiple medications.

You can also take steps in your everyday life. Eat a nutritious, balanced diet; be physically active on a regular basis; and stop smoking if applicable. Additionally, it can be beneficial to lose body weight if you are overweight. Contact your provider to discuss a safe and sustainable weight-loss plan if you’re interested.

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and, if needed text with a healthcare provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens when diabetes is uncontrolled?
If your diabetes is uncontrolled, your blood sugar can stay at abnormally high levels for extended periods. This can cause nerve damage, circulation problems, and other complications.
What are 3 complications of uncontrolled diabetes?
There are many complications of uncontrolled diabetes. In particular, it can cause vision loss, nerve damage, and organ damage that can lead to kidney and heart disease.
What are the common symptoms of uncontrolled diabetes?
The symptoms of uncontrolled diabetes are incredibly varied. You may experience excessive thirst and urination, blurry vision, hearing loss, circulation problems, skin infections, slow wound healing, and more.
How long can you live with uncontrolled diabetes?
Leaving diabetes unchecked is dangerous and can lead to several serious health complications. If left untreated, some of these can be fatal. So follow your treatment plan to the best of your ability to mitigate the negative effects of uncontrolled diabetes. If it’s challenging to follow your treatment plan, talk to your provider.

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.

Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN

Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN is a board certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 15 years experience. He received his Undergraduate and Graduate degrees from William Paterson University and his doctoral degree from Drexel University. He has spent his career working in the Emergency Room and Primary Care. The last 6 years of his career have been dedicated to the field of digital medicine. He has created departments geared towards this specialized practice as well as written blogs and a book about the topic.

K Health logo (used on certain page templates)