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Some things you expect to be different for men and women — puberty, facial hair, periods, the ability to give birth — but the way sexes experience medical conditions can also be quite different.
Just as science shows the “man flu” might actually be a thing (sorry ladies), diabetes can also manifest differently for women than it does for men.
In a nutshell, men and women experience unique diabetes symptoms because of their differing hormones. For women, diabetes can show up in the form of infections and hormonal imbalances that often affect the reproductive system.
Knowing what to look for is an easy way to stay on top of your health. So ladies, grab a seat. Here’s what we know so far about diabetes and the female body:
Type 1 diabetes often shows up in younger people, typically between the ages of 4 and 7 or 10 and 14. It can sometimes appear as a person gets older, but the likelihood of diagnosis decreases with age. Look out for a few other telltale signs you could be at risk for this condition:
- Family history. Individuals with a parent or sibling who has type 1 diabetes are at heightened risk for having diabetes themselves.
- Environmental factors. Research has indicated that exposure to certain pathogens or infections in the womb or in early childhood could increase your risk for type 1 diabetes. This may also have to do with a genetic predisposition for the condition. Talk to your doctor for further clarification on whether this might apply to you.
Risk factors for type 2 diabetes are slightly different and have more to do with lifestyle, although genes do play a role. If you’re over 45 years of age and fit into one or more of the following criteria, you could be at risk for type 2 diabetes:
- being physically inactive (exercing fewer than 3 times per week)
- being overweight
- family history (if a parent or sibling has type 2 diabetes, you’re at a higher risk for developing it)
- prediabetes (If your blood sugar levels are higher than normal, you’re at risk for developing type 2 diabetes. This is very common ans according to the CDC, 1 in 3 American adults have prediabetes. It can be determined using a blood sugar test.)
Though diabetes is a condition that affects your blood sugar levels, it shows up in the female body in ways you might not expect — like around your lady parts.
Diabetes can send your hormone levels out of whack, which explains why it can sometimes have an effect on your reproductive organs. While these situations aren’t usually a sure sign that you have diabetes, they could be early warning signs.
- Vaginal yeast infection. If you feel a burning sensation around your vagina and vulva, experience pain during intercourse or urination, see thick, white discharge, or a rash of any kind, you might have a yeast infection. This can happen when the body has an overload of blood sugar, and if it comes back multiple times within a year, it might be a symptom of a larger problem such as diabetes.
- Urinary tract infection. Often, diabetes affects the immune system’s natural ability to fight off infection. It can also cause the bladder to have trouble emptying fully, which sometimes leads to UTIs in women. You may notice a constant need to urinate and a burning sensation whenever you do get to go.
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome. PCOS is a condition that causes infertility in 6 to 12 percent of American women of reproductive age. It’s also closely linked to type 2 diabetes. Because PCOS can make it difficult for the body to use insulin effectively, it can also be a risk factor for (and ultimately a symptom of) diabetes, especially for women over 40.
Some diabetes symptoms affect men and women equally. For type 1 diabetes, they’ll commonly show up in childhood, but for type 2, they may manifest in older adults. Some things to look for:
- frequent urination
- constant hunger or thirst
- excessive fatigue
- numbness in the hands or feet
- blurry vision
- extreme weight loss
Especially for people with type 2 diabetes, these symptoms can sneak up very slowly and be difficult to spot. If you know you have a family history of diabetes, or if you’ve been diagnosed with prediabetes, monitor your blood sugar closely and ask for frequent check-ins with your doctor.
When a woman with no personal diabetes history begins to develop diabetes symptoms during pregnancy, she is experiencing something called gestational diabetes.
According to the CDC, this typically shows up in the second trimester, and doctors will test for it between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy.
Often, gestational diabetes can be managed with a regular exercise regimen and healthy eating habits, though it may sometimes be necessary to take insulin as well.
As long as the condition is treated, there’s little risk of adverse complications to a pregnancy. However, if left unaddressed, gestational diabetes can increase the likelihood of a large baby, premature delivery, or cesarean section.
Women who have gestational diabetes have a higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes after giving birth — and later in life as well. Once your pregnancy is over, continue to monitor your blood sugar and look out for any telltale signs of early diabetes.
If you’re concerned you may have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, check in with your primary care physician.
Your doctor can conduct a glycated hemoglobin test to determine your blood sugar levels over the past few months, or a fasting blood sugar test to determine your body’s resting blood sugar levels. You could also be asked to take a test that requires you to drink a sugary liquid and spike your blood sugar.
If results are inconsistent, you may end up taking a series of tests before the diagnosis becomes clear. Regardless, these tests will show whether you have type 1, type 2, gestational, prediabetes, or none of the above. From there, you can start to look ahead to forming a treatment plan.
Depending on which type of diabetes you’ve been diagnosed with, your treatment plan may look a little different. Since gestational diabetes is often limited to the length of the pregnancy, a change in diet and routine may solve the problem on its own. In more serious cases, your doctor may recommend that you take insulin until you give birth.
Typically, with type 1 diabetes, you’ll take insulin as a pill or injection several times throughout the day. Your doctor may also prescribe high blood pressure medications, aspirin (for your heart), or cholesterol-lowering drugs.
One thing to be aware of for women with type 1 diabetes is that birth control pills can sometimes exacerbate your symptoms. Taking hormones often impacts your blood glucose levels, so you may need to switch to a contraceptive method with lower hormone doses, like the IUD or low dose birth control pill.
Type 2 diabetes is also treated with insulin and other medications. Symptoms can be further lessened with regular exercise, a cleaner diet, and weight loss. There’s no cure for type 2 diabetes, but if you treat it carefully, it can sometimes be reversed almost entirely.