What is diabetes?

Diabetes is characterized by high levels of glucose (a type of sugar) in the blood resulting from the body’s inability to use blood glucose for energy.1 There are several different types of diabetes, but the two most common are type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

In people with type 1 diabetes, the pancreas does not make insulin, a hormone that is released after meals to help the body use or store blood glucose (a type of sugar) it gets from food. People with type 1 diabetes must take insulin shots daily.2,3

In people with type 2 diabetes, the pancreas makes some insulin, but their bodies don’t respond to it very well. This is called insulin resistance. People who have type 2 diabetes typically are prescribed oral medication when the disease is first diagnosed, and may eventually require insulin shots as the disease progresses.2,3

Although diabetes is a lifelong disease, it’s important to remember that there are many things a person can do to stay healthy. People with diabetes should be sure to talk with their healthcare provider about what lifestyle changes and medicines might be best for them.

What causes diabetes?

No one knows for sure what causes diabetes, but both genetic and environmental factors are believed to play a role. People who have a family history of the disease; are African American, Hispanic, Native American, or Asian American; are overweight; older; and/or take certain medicines may be at increased risk for developing diabetes. Being pregnant can also put extra stress on a woman’s body, which can lead to gestational diabetes, a type of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy and usually goes away after childbirth. Women who have a history of gestational diabetes are at increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes later in life.2,3

How many people have diabetes?

Diabetes, especially type 2 diabetes, is very common. In the United States, 34.2 million people have diabetes—that’s 10.5% of the entire population. That number includes 7.3 million Americans whose diabetes has not been diagnosed.4

How is diabetes managed?

Proper diet, exercise, and different types of medicine are used to manage diabetes. While most patients with type 2 diabetes will be prescribed medication upon diagnosis, some are treated with lifestyle modification (changes to their physical activity and eating habits) before they need to take medicine. Care plans for people with diabetes are individualized based on each person’s needs.5

Some people who have diabetes, particularly those using insulin, are advised by their healthcare providers to measure the levels of glucose (sugar) in their blood and keep a log of their results. This log helps healthcare providers understand how well their patient’s body is responding to their diabetes care plan.5

Do all people with diabetes have to take insulin?

People with type 1 diabetes always need to take insulin because their pancreas does not make it. People with type 2 diabetes typically do not need to take insulin when the disease is first diagnosed, but many of them eventually need to take insulin or other medications that are given by injection as the disease progresses. Some patients may need a combination of oral and injectable medicine. Every person’s care plan is different and reflects what each person’s own body needs. In cases where insulin is needed, people who were afraid to use it often say they feel better after they start taking it. 5

What are the typical symptoms of diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in children and young adults. People who have type 1 diabetes often have sudden, severe symptoms. These include increased thirst, dry mouth, a need to urinate often, unintended weight loss, feeling weak or tired, and blurred vision.  

Many times, people with type 2 diabetes do not notice any symptoms. If they do, they might have blurred vision, itchy skin (especially in the vaginal or groin area), yeast infections, slow healing of sores and cuts, dry mouth, and a need to urinate more often. 2,3

How does someone know that he or she has diabetes?

The only way to know for certain if a person has diabetes is for a healthcare provider to perform blood and urine tests. Usually, when two blood tests show a person has a blood sugar level of 126 mg/dL or greater after fasting for at least eight hours, that person has a diagnosis of diabetes.,2,3

What is A1c?

A1c is the abbreviation that is used for hemoglobin A1c, a measure of blood glucose that shows the average blood glucose for the past 60–90 days. A1c is also used to diagnose diabetes. An A1c of 6.5% or higher is an indication of diabetes.5

Is there a cure for diabetes?

Right now, there is no cure for diabetes, but most people can manage and control it. It’s very important for people with diabetes to follow their care plan. If diabetes is not managed well, it can lead to serious complications like heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, low blood pressure, eye damage and loss of sight, gum disease, serious infections in feet that can sometimes require amputation, and nerve damage that can result in pain or loss of sensation. People with diabetes can often avoid these complications by following their care plan.2,3

How do people with diabetes know what their blood sugar levels should be?

This is different for each person and can change throughout the day. The American Diabetes Association recommends that most people with diabetes have a fasting or before-meals blood glucose (blood sugar) goal of 70–130 mg/dL. About an hour or two after eating, a blood sugar reading at or under 180 mg/dL is recommended.3 Healthcare providers give patients a target range so that they can keep their blood sugar within these levels. It’s important for blood sugar not to be too low or too high. If blood sugar is less than 70 mg/dL or higher than 180 mg/dL for three days in a row, patients should call their healthcare provider.5

Why is it important for people with type 2 diabetes to maintain a healthy weight?

Maintaining a healthy weight is an important part of managing both type 1 and type 2 diabetes since being overweight can counteract the benefits of good diabetes control. When a person with type 2 diabetes loses excess weight, his or her body is better able to use the insulin it makes. Even a modest weight loss can improve blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels, which can reduce the need for anti-diabetic medications or lower the dosage a person needs.2,3 Benefits are seen when patients achieve a weight loss of 3%-5% of their body weight, with greater benefits seen with increasing weight loss. Several diabetes medications reduce A1c levels while promoting weight loss. Speak with your doctor about medication options that can help you control your diabetes and lose weight.5


  1. Common Terms. American Diabetes Association.
  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (and subsequent webpages)
  3. Cleveland Clinic. (and other diabetes topics)
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2020. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Department of Health and Human Services; 2020.
  5.  American Diabetes Association. Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes—2021 Abridged for Primary Care Providers. Clin Diabetes. 2020;cd21as01.


Additional source for patient information

American Association of Diabetes Educators.

Patient Toolkit

Digital Health Coaching

Living With Diabetes

Can We Talk?

Resources and Additional Info


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