Diabetes can affect every part of the body, including the skin. As many as 33 percent of people with diabetes will have a skin disorder caused or affected by diabetes at some time in their lives. In fact, such problems are sometimes the first sign that a person has diabetes. Luckily, most skin conditions can be prevented or easily treated if caught early.
Some of these problems are skin conditions anyone can have, but people with diabetes get more easily. These include bacterial infections, fungal infections, and itching. Other skin problems happen mostly or only to people with diabetes. These include diabetic dermopathy, necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum, diabetic blisters, and eruptive xanthomatosis. You may also be interested in our book, Uncomplicated Guide To Diabetes' Complications, 3rd Edition.
General Skin Conditions
Several kinds of bacterial infections occur in people with diabetes:
- Styes (infections of the glands of the eyelid)
- Folliculitis (infections of the hair follicles)
- Carbuncles (deep infections of the skin and the tissue underneath)
- Infections around the nails
Inflamed tissues are usually hot, swollen, red, and painful. Several different organisms can cause infections, the most common being Staphylococcus bacteria, also called staph.
Once, bacterial infections were life threatening, especially for people with diabetes. Today, death is rare, thanks to antibiotics and better methods of blood sugar control.
But even today, people with diabetes have more bacterial infections than other people do. Doctors believe people with diabetes can reduce their chances of these infections by practicing good skin care.
If you think you have a bacterial infection, see your doctor.
The culprit in fungal infections of people with diabetes is often Candida albicans. This yeast-like fungus can create itchy rashes of moist, red areas surrounded by tiny blisters and scales. These infections often occur in warm, moist folds of the skin. Problem areas are under the breasts, around the nails, between fingers and toes, in the corners of the mouth, under the foreskin (in uncircumcised men), and in the armpits and groin.
Common fungal infections include jock itch, athlete's foot, ringworm (a ring-shaped itchy patch), and vaginal infection that causes itching.
If you think you have a yeast or fungal infection, call your doctor. You will need a prescription medicine to cure it.
Localized itching is often caused by diabetes. It can be caused by a yeast infection, dry skin, or poor circulation. When poor circulation is the cause of itching, the itchiest areas may be the lower parts of the legs.
You may be able to treat itching yourself. Limit how often you bathe, particularly when the humidity is low. Use mild soap with moisturizer and apply skin cream after bathing.
Diabetes-Related Skin Conditions
Diabetes can cause changes in the small blood vessels. These changes can cause skin problems called diabetic dermopathy.
Dermopathy often looks like light brown, scaly patches. These patches may be oval or circular. Some people mistake them for age spots. This disorder most often occurs on the front of both legs. But the legs may not be affected to the same degree. The patches do not hurt, open up, or itch.
Dermopathy is harmless and doesn't need to be treated.
Necrobiosis Lipoidica Diabeticorum
Another disease that may be caused by changes in the blood vessels is necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum (NLD). NLD causes spots similar to diabetic dermopathy, but they are fewer, larger, and deeper.
NLD often starts as a dull, red, raised area. After a while, it looks like a shiny scar with a violet border. The blood vessels under the skin may become easier to see. Sometimes NLD is itchy and painful. Sometimes the spots crack open.
NLD is a rare condition. Adult women are the most likely to get it. As long as the sores do not break open, you do not need to have it treated. But if you get open sores, see your doctor for treatment.
Atherosclerosis is a thickening of the arteries that can affect the skin on the legs. People with diabetes tend to get atherosclerosis at younger ages than other people do.
As atherosclerosis narrows the blood vessels, the skin changes. It becomes hairless, thin, cool, and shiny. The toes become cold. Toenails thicken and discolor. And exercise causes pain in the calf muscles because the muscles are not getting enough oxygen.
Because blood carries the infection-fighting white cells, affected legs heal slowly when the skin in injured. Even minor scrapes can result in open sores that heal slowly.
People with neuropathy are more likely to suffer foot injuries. These occur because the person does not feel pain, heat, cold, or pressure as well. The person can have an injured foot and not know about it. The wound goes uncared for, and so infections develop easily. Atherosclerosis can make things worse. The reduced blood flow can cause the infection to become severe.
Allergic skin reactions can occur in response to medicines, such as insulin or diabetes pills. You should see your doctor if you think you are having a reaction to a medicine. Be on the lookout for rashes, depressions, or bumps at the sites where you inject insulin.
Diabetic Blisters (Bullosis Diabeticorum)
Rarely, people with diabetes erupt in blisters. Diabetic blisters can occur on the backs of fingers, hands, toes, feet, and sometimes, on legs or forearms. These sores look like burn blisters and often occur in people who have diabetic neuropathy. They are sometimes large, but they are painless and have no redness around them. They heal by themselves, usually without scars, in about three weeks. The only treatment is to bring blood sugar levels under control.
Eruptive xanthomatosis is another condition caused by diabetes that's out of control. It consists of firm, yellow, pea-like enlargements in the skin. Each bump has a red halo and may itch. This condition occurs most often on the backs of hands, feet, arms, legs, and buttocks.
The disorder usually occurs in young men with type 1 diabetes. The person often has high levels of cholesterol and fat in the blood. Like diabetic blisters, these bumps disappear when diabetes control is restored.
Sometimes, people with diabetes develop tight, thick, waxy skin on the backs of their hands. Sometimes skin on the toes and forehead also becomes thick. The finger joints become stiff and can no longer move the way they should. Rarely, knees, ankles, or elbows also get stiff.
This condition happens to about one third of people who have type 1 diabetes. The only treatment is to bring blood sugar levels under control.
Disseminated Granuloma Annulare
In disseminated granuloma annulare, the person has sharply defined ring- or arc-shaped raised areas on the skin. These rashes occur most often on parts of the body far from the trunk (for example, the fingers or ears). But sometimes the raised areas occur on the trunk. They can be red, red-brown, or skin-colored.
See your doctor if you get rashes like this. There are drugs that can help clear up this condition.
Acanthosis nigricans is a condition in which tan or brown raised areas appear on the sides of the neck, armpits, and groin. Sometimes they also occur on the hands, elbows, and knees.
Acanthosis nigricans usually strikes people who are very overweight. The best treatment is to lose weight. Some creams can help the spots look better.