Everyone gets dry skin from time to time. But for people with diabetes, it can be a chronic problem if your blood glucose levels are regularly high. High blood glucose causes the body to lose fluids at a faster rate. Skin can also become dry when nerves are damaged from years of diabetes and don't get the message to sweat.
For people with diabetes, dry skin can become more than an irritation -- it can be dangerous. When skin is dry, it sloughs off easier, and often the outer layer is lost. This outer layer is your skin's first defense against bacteria and acts as a barrier. And because bacteria feed on glucose, people with diabetes whose blood glucose isn't in control have a higher risk of bacterial infection -- the bacteria are literally on a feeding frenzy in the higher glucose levels. That's why even the tiniest cut can become a major infection when your glucose levels are regularly high.
Experts say it's vital to keep a close eye on your skin. If you identify a cut, scratch, or burn early, it's possible to avoid major complications such as an amputation.
"Don't wait! Even if a skin condition appears to be minor, see your doctor," says Fran Cook-Bolden, M.D., clinical professor of dermatology at Columbia University in New York City.
Many skin conditions associated with high blood glucose levels cause changes in your skin's color, texture, or pigmentation. Watch for:
Dull red raised areas.
Light brown scaly patches, rashes, and depressions or bumps at injection sites if you take insulin.
Skin on your legs that becomes hairless, thin, cool, and shiny (signs of thickening arteries and poor circulation).
Moist, red itchy areas surrounded by tiny blisters and scales (sign of fungal infection).
Controlled Glucose Means Healthy Skin
Fortunately, the steps you take to control blood glucose -- following a healthful meal plan, exercising, and taking your prescribed medications -- also help keep your skin healthy. The better you manage your blood glucose, the lower your chances of having bacteria-related complications with your skin.
"People with diabetes tend to have sensitive skin," Cook-Bolden says, "so it's important to avoid any trauma or bruising that could result in a slow-healing wound." Use these tips to keep your skin healthy:
Treat all cuts and scratches: See a doctor if you suffer a major cut, burn, or infection; if a minor problem persists after more than a week of treatment; or if you're unsure about a skin condition. For minor cuts or scratches: - rinse the area with mild soap and warm water. - cover with a sterile gauze. - use antibiotic cream only if your physician recommends it.
Practice a 30-in-30 guideline: Apply a sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher at least 30 minutes before going into the sun, and reapply it as the package directions suggest. Coat dry areas and minor sunburns with moisturizing lotions.
Don't bathe too long or too hot: Overly long periods in hot water can dry your skin. When you bathe or shower, use warm -- not hot -- water and a mild cleanser.
Moisturize: Apply a moisturizer everywhere (except between your toes) while your skin is still slightly damp. To help skin stay clean and dry, use talcum powder in areas where skin touches skin, such as the armpits. (Note that minor sweating can act as a natural moisturizer.)
Beware spa treatments: If you get your nails or feet manicured, tell the manicurist that you have diabetes. Make sure they sanitize all instruments properly. If you can't cut your toenails yourself, get them cut by a podiatrist rather than a manicurist.
Don't pick at skin sores: Resist the urge to scratch and break the skin, as that enables germs to enter your body.
Pat Baird, M.A., R.D., is a nutrition consultant and author of four cookbooks.