man getting his finger pricked

Diabetes is a chronic health condition that affects more than 37 million people in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About 1 in 5 Americans with diabetes don't know they have it.

The good news for people with diabetes is that you can learn how to decrease complications and live a long, healthy life. It's also important for all of us to know our risk factors for diabetes and how to reduce the chance of getting diabetes.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition where your body has challenges regulating the sugars, or glucose, in the blood. It's natural to have sugar in your bloodstream since it provides your body with energy.

When you eat, your body breaks down the food and converts some of it into sugar. The sugar then enters the blood stream. When this happens, a hormone called insulin is released to help move the sugars into the cells. That sugar is then converted into energy.

Your pancreas makes insulin. It knows how much to make and when to release insulin to the rest of your body. When a person has diabetes, the sugars build up in the bloodstream because it has trouble getting into the cells. High sugars in the body's blood vessels can cause damage to organs like the heart, eyes, kidneys, and other parts of your body.

Types and causes of diabetes

There are three main types of diabetes, and the causes are different for each.

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes tends to occur suddenly. Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune condition where the body attacks the pancreas. The pancreas is then unable to make insulin. Without insulin, the sugar cannot enter the cells. Treatment for type 1 diabetes is to take daily insulin injections.

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes and is a condition that occurs slowly. With this type of diabetes your body's cells have trouble using insulin properly over a period of time. This is known as insulin-resistance. The pancreas then over-produces insulin to help the sugar get into the cell. This causes the pancreas to tire out, leading to less insulin production over time.

Luckily, with annual doctor visits to check your blood work, you can catch these symptoms early and decrease your chances of getting type 2 diabetes.

Read more from UC Davis Health: Healthy habits to help you prevent or manage your type 2 diabetes

Gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes is a condition that affects pregnant women. The body is unable to regulate the blood sugars during pregnancy. Typically, the body resumes normal blood sugar regulation after the baby is born. If a woman has had gestational diabetes, she should be monitored regularly for signs of type 2 diabetes.

Symptoms of diabetes

Some common first signs of diabetes are:

  • frequent urination
  • thirst
  • blurry vision
  • tiredness
  • extreme hunger
  • itchy skin
  • infections that take longer to heal
  • sudden weight loss without trying

If you're experiencing any of these symptoms, consider calling your primary care physician for a checkup.

Can you get rid of diabetes?

Type 1 and type 2 diabetes are not reversible. They are manageable, and you can live a long healthy life with diabetes. Gestational diabetes typically only occurs during pregnancy, and the body resumes normal function after the baby is born.

Diabetes risk factors

According to the CDC, known risk factors for type 1 diabetes include:

  • Family history: Your risk for type 1 diabetes increases if you have a parent or sibling with type 1 diabetes.
  • Age: Type 1 diabetes can happen at any age, but it usually starts showing in children, teens, and young adults.

There are several risk factors that can increase your chance of type 2 diabetes:

  • You have prediabetes.
  • You are overweight.
  • You have a parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes.
  • You are not physically active.
  • You have had gestational diabetes or have given birth to a baby who weighed more than 9 pounds.
  • You are an African American, Hispanic or Latino, American Indian, or Alaska Native person. Some Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans are also at higher risk, according to the CDC.

You can take a short quiz to assess your risk of type 2 diabetes from the American Diabetes Association.

Get help managing your diabetes

UC Davis Health offers free diabetes classes. These include classes on understanding your diabetes, diabetes nutrition, staying on track with diabetes, type 1 diabetes support groups, and more. You can take classes online or in person Monday through Saturday.

To sign up for these classes, call 916-734-0718 or enroll on the MyUCDavisHealth app or website. (On your smartphone app or desktop, click on "Visits" at the top and then "Schedule an Appointment." Scroll down and click on "Health and Wellness Classes." From there, follow the prompts to sign up for the class you want.)

UC Davis Health also has a diabetes clinic in Sacramento, with services offered across the Sacramento region.

Learn about the world-class diabetes care from UC Davis Health

Learn more about diabetes

This blog was written by Melinda Gong, a registered dietitian at UC Davis Health. She specializes in diabetes self-management education, where she helps guide patients to manage their conditions so they can live a healthy life.