Diabetes affects many organs in the body, including the skin. People with diabetes are more prone to skin problems, including dry skin, injection-related scarring that affects insulin absorption in the body, and vaginal infection. Because diabetes increases the risk for infection, even a minor skin condition can develop into a more serious problem.
People with diabetes "get everything!" says Kathy Kindelan, RN, a retired nurse who has had diabetes since her 20s. If you develop even a small skin problem, she says, "You have to treat it aggressively."
Diabetes skin conditions generally fall into three categories, says Margo S. Hudson, MD, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and endocrinologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston:
- Skin conditions that happen mostly to people with diabetes
- Common skin infections made worse by having high blood sugar
- Skin problems that occur from injecting insulin
This guide on diabetes and skin care will fill you in on common diabetes-related skin conditions and how to prevent or care for them.
Common Skin Conditions with Diabetes
The causes of diabetes-related skin conditions vary. Many are harmless, but it's helpful to recognize them and know when to see your doctor for treatment.
Diabetic dermopathy. This condition appears as light brown, scaly, round spots on the shins. They look a lot like age spots, but are caused by changes in the small blood vessels. "It's more of a cosmetic issue and doesn’t really require treatment," Hudson tells WebMD.
Disseminated granuloma annulare. This causes red, red-brown, or skin-colored raised rings or arcs on the skin. It usually occurs on the fingers, ears, or lower legs, but it can occur on the trunk. Your doctor can prescribe a topical cortisone cream or other therapies to treat it.
Digital sclerosis. About one-third of people with type 1 diabetes have this condition, which can make the skin on the back of the hands become thick, waxy, and tight. This makes finger joints stiff and difficult to move. It can also happen on the forehead and toes and, rarely, the elbows, knees, or ankles. Getting blood sugar under control treats it.
Acanthosis nigricans. With this condition, the skin on the neck, armpits, or groin thickens and becomes brown or tan. "People think it's dirt and wonder why they can't clean it off," Hudson says. Caused by insulin resistance, this occurs most often in people who are overweight. Treatment includes losing weight and taking diabetes medications, which helps the body use insulin better.
Eruptive xanthomatosis. Young men with type 1 diabetes who also have high levels of cholesterol and fat in the blood often develop this condition. It causes raised, yellow, pea-sized bumps that have a red halo and may itch. They appear on the hands, arms, feet, legs, and buttocks. Getting blood sugar levels under control clears them up.