Diabetes is a condition that can affect many different parts of your body, including your skin. In fact, diabetes can cause a variety of skin problems that can affect your skin on different parts of your body.
If you are diabetic, it is important to be aware of these skin conditions and know when to see your doctor.
In this article, we will answer some common questions about diabetes and skin problems and also provide tips for preventing diabetic skin issues.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes, also called diabetes mellitus, is a chronic disease characterized by elevated blood glucose levels (also called blood sugar).
Your body receives most of its glucose from the food and drinks you ingest and the reason it needs glucose is so your cells can convert it into energy.
There are three common forms of diabetes: type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and gestational diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in childhood and happens when your pancreas stops making insulin, a hormone that helps your cells convert glucose into energy.
Type 2 diabetes is the most common type which is often diagnosed in adults and occurs when your body either does not make enough insulin or can not use the insulin it does produce correctly.
It is important to note though that you can get either type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes at any age and that the high blood sugar levels caused by uncontrolled diabetes can increase your risk for serious health complications including heart disease, stroke, kidney damage, eye damage, nerve damage (diabetic neuropathy), and amputation.
What are the skin conditions caused by diabetes?
Diabetic dermopathy, also called shin spots, is a common skin condition caused by diabetes that may look like age spots or discolored skin patches.
It is characterized by small, rounded, patches on the lower legs that may be brown or red in color.
The patches are usually painless and do not itch and go away eventually although it may take up to 18 months.
These brownish patches on your skin appear like a dark brown birthmark but they are a skin condition caused by diabetes.
The brown skin spots may have thickened, velvety skin that can appear in skin folds on your neck, armpits, groin, or other body creases.
The spots can itch and also produce an odor too.
Necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum
Necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum (NLD) is a skin condition caused by diabetes that can lead to changes in your skin.
It usually appears as a dull, red area on your shin that slowly turns into a yellowish-brown patch with waxy skin.
Necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum can be itchy and painful and may cause ulcers that are difficult to treat.
Eruptive xanthomas are diabetes-related skin eruptions that look like pimples and usually appear on the back, buttocks, feet, legs, hands, and arms.
The bumps are filled with a yellow substance called lipids and are often itchy.
You are most likely to get this condition if you are a young male with type 1 diabetes.
Diabetes-related blisters, also called bullous diabetes or bullosis diabeticorum, can usually occur on your toes, feet, legs, fingers, and other parts of your extremities.
The blisters look like burn blisters or wounds and are filled with fluid.
They are caused by poor blood flow to the area but are not very painful. Diabetic blisters usually heal on their own but can become infected if not cared for properly.
The skin condition vitiligo causes your skin to lose its pigment in patches.
It can occur anywhere on your body but is most noticeable on the face, chest, stomach, and back. Vitiligo is not painful or contagious but can be difficult to treat.
Xanthelasma is diabetes-related yellow growths on your eyelids.
They are not cancerous and do not cause any symptoms but can be unsightly.
The spots are composed of extra cholesterol and can signify the need to manage your diabetes or cholesterol although they can be attributed to other factors too.
When you have diabetes it can slow the wound healing process, especially in your feet due to poor circulation.
Foot ulcers are open skin sores, wounds, or skin lesions on your feet that can become infected.
Foot ulcers are one of the serious complications of diabetes and if not cared for properly can cause a foot infection that will lead to amputation so it is important that you see your doctor or podiatrist (foot doctor) when you get them.
Dry skin or itchy skin
Dry skin or itchy skin can be a diabetes symptom but can also be caused by other conditions.
If you have diabetes, your body may not produce enough oil or sweat to keep your skin moist which can lead to dry, itchy skin.
You also may suffer from poor circulation which can also cause it. The best ways to prevent dry, itchy skin are to keep your diabetes under control, moisturize regularly, and avoid long, hot showers or baths.
There are several fungal infections that can be caused by diabetes and these include athlete’s foot, jock itch, and ringworm.
All of these are most commonly caused by the fungus called Candida albicans which prefers to inhabit the moist folds of your skin where it is warm and conducive for growth.
Candida albicans is the yeast most commonly associated with yeast infections. Athlete’s foot is a fungal infection that causes itchy, red, scaly patches of skin on your feet.
Jock itch is a fungal infection that causes itchy, red, scaly skin in the groin area or inner thighs. Ringworm is a fungal infection that causes itchy, red, circular patches on your skin. You can also get fungal nail infections in your toenails that will discolor them and make them yellow or brown. Most fungal infections can be treated with antifungal medications.
Bacterial infections are another type of skin infection that can happen due to diabetes and are usually caused by the bacteria staphylococcus.
The most common types of bacterial skin infections are folliculitis, styes on your eyelids, infected toenails, and boils.
Folliculitis is a skin infection that causes red bumps around hair follicles. Styes are infections of the oil glands in your eyelids.
Infected toenails are caused by bacteria getting under your toenail. Boils are skin infections that cause large, painful, pus-filled bumps and can turn into carbuncles which are a cluster of boils.
The treatment for bacterial skin infections usually involves antibiotic creams.
Granuloma annulare is a skin condition that causes red, purple, or tan bumps to form in a ring on your skin.
The bumps are usually painless but can be itchy and most often appear on your extremities.
The condition is more common in women and children, is not contagious, and the link between granuloma annulare and diabetes is not fully understood.
Thickened skin (digital sclerosis)
Thickened skin (digital sclerosis) is a condition where the skin on your feet and hands can thicken, look waxy, and harden making it difficult to move your joints.
It can also sometimes spread to your back, arms, or shoulders.
The thickened skin can make it difficult to detect sores or cuts which can lead to infection.
Atherosclerosis is a diabetes-related condition that causes the buildup of plaque in your arteries.
The plaque can harden and narrow your arteries and blood vessels which can lead to heart disease, stroke, or peripheral arterial disease.
When atherosclerosis affects your skin, it can cause a loss of hair or your hair to thin, thickened skin, and discoloration of your toenails.
Allergic reactions are another type of diabetes-related skin condition.
Allergic reactions can be caused by diabetes medications such as insulin or other substances that come in contact with your skin.
The most common allergic reaction is to a medication called metformin which is used to treat diabetes.
You may also develop an allergic reaction around the injection site for your insulin.
Allergic reactions can cause a number of different symptoms but the way it can affect your skin is with an itchy rash or hives. If you have difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, or swelling in your face or mouth due to an allergic reaction seek medical attention immediately.
Scleredema diabeticorum is a diabetes-related skin condition that can cause the skin on the back of your neck, shoulders, or upper back to thicken and harden just like digital sclerosis.
The condition is more common if you have diabetes and are obese.
It is best treated using moisturizing lotion and controlling your blood sugar levels.
When do I need to see my doctor about diabetic skin problems?
If you have diabetes and develop any kind of skin rash, sores, infections, or other problems with your skin, it is important to see your doctor right away.
Your doctor can help you treat the problem and prevent it from getting worse.
Common skin problems due to diabetes that may necessitate you to see your doctor include the following:
- Cracks in your skin, especially around your heel
- Changing skin color
- Constant foot odor
- Corns, calluses, or bunions
- Pain, numbness, or tingling in your extremities
- If your skin changes temperature and becomes hotter or colder than normal
- Swelling of the skin in your feet or ankles
- Open sores (ulcers) that may be slow to heal
- Ingrown toenails or ingrown nails affected by fungus
If you have diabetes and notice any changes in your skin, be sure to mention it to your doctor during your next appointment.
Are there ways to prevent diabetic skin problems?
You can help prevent diabetes-related skin problems with proper skin care and keeping your blood sugar levels under control.
Be sure to wash your skin daily with mild soap and warm water and not hot water as it can leave your skin dry. Wear loose-fitting, breathable clothing, and avoid tight shoes or socks.
Don’t smoke, exercise regularly, and eat a healthy diet while using moisturizing cream on your skin regularly to help keep it healthy. If you have corns or calluses you can smooth them with an emery board or pumice stone.
Trimming your toenails regularly is also important to keep your feet healthy. Make sure to trim them straight across and not rounded as this promotes ingrown toenails.
You also need to see your doctor regularly to check for any changes in your skin and check your own skin daily for any changes.
If you have diabetes, taking good care of your skin is an important part of keeping yourself healthy. Be sure to talk to your doctor or dermatologist about any changes in your skin, and follow their recommendations for treatment and prevention.
Some of the skin conditions will need treatment right away while others will cause no discomfort and go away on their own.
It is important to see your doctor right away if you are diabetic and develop skin problems so you can receive treatment if necessary.
You can help prevent diabetes-related skin problems by taking good care of your skin and keeping your blood sugar levels under control.
If you have any more questions about diabetes and skin conditions, please consult with your doctor, health care provider, or dermatologist.
References and sources:
American Academy of Dermatology Association
Fact Checked and Editorial Process
Diabetic.org is devoted to producing expert and accurate articles and information for our readers by hiring experts, journalists, medical professionals, and our growing Diabetic.org community. We encourage you to read more about our content, editing, and fact checking methods here. This was fact checked by Jacqueline Hensler and medically reviewed by Dr. Angel Rivera.
Erik Rivera is a co-founder of Diabetic.org and has been an e-commerce Entrepreneur for over 10 years since he retired from Special Forces after graduating from the Naval Academy. He also is the founder of Health Ramp Services, a company that brings new medical device companies to market. He has founded several digital businesses and has had a number of successful exits in e-commerce as well as software. His OnePet business is a leader in the online Pet Care space by creating and delivering high quality products and services for pet owners.