Diabetes is a chronic (life-long) autoimmune disease that significantly impacts your life. Having this chronic disease means you must work to control your blood glucose (sugar) levels to ensure that they don’t get too high or too low.
The amount and balance of glucose in your blood are important. Your body needs glucose for energy, but too much of it can destroy body tissues, and too little can starve your body of nutrients.
People who have diabetes are also at risk of developing wounds and sores that don’t heal well. While the wounds are present, they are at high risk of developing an infection. When an infection overwhelms the body, it can cause sepsis and septic shock.
Sepsis, which was often called blood poisoning, is the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Like strokes or heart attacks, sepsis is a medical emergency that requires rapid diagnosis and treatment.
Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumonia, influenza, or urinary tract infections. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who do survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, organ dysfunction (organs don’t work properly), and/or amputations.
What is diabetes?
Your pancreas is a small organ (about 6” by 1.5”) that is part of your digestive system. It connects to your small intestine and sits just below your stomach towards the back. Your pancreas has a few roles, one is to help digest the food you eat and another is to secrete (send out) insulin, which stimulates your cells to use the glucose in the food and drink you consume.
When a person has diabetes, the pancreas doesn’t function properly. The pancreas either doesn’t secrete insulin at all or not effectively, depending on the type of diabetes.
According to the American Diabetes Association, 11.3% of the American population has the disease. That is 37.3 million children and adults. There are 28.7 million people diagnosed with diabetes and 8.5 million who have it but are not diagnosed. In addition, 96 million adults are close to developing diabetes; they fall into the “pre-diabetes” category. Compare this with 2017, when 9.4% of people in the U.S. had diabetes, 30.3 million children and adults; 23.1 million people diagnosed, and 7.2 not yet diagnosed. Over 84 million people had pre-diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes
Type 1 used to be called juvenile or insulin-dependent diabetes. It is now called type 1. The names changed because many people develop type 1 diabetes. As well, insulin isn’t restricted to people with this type of diabetes.
With type 1 diabetes, the pancreas cannot produce the insulin needed for the body to metabolize the glucose in the bloodstream.
Type 2 diabetes
Type 2 used to be called adult-onset or non-insulin-dependent diabetes. Neither of these names works because now younger people are developing type 2 diabetes, and it is not unusual for someone with type 2 diabetes to need insulin.
With type 2, the pancreas either doesn’t produce enough insulin, or the body cannot effectively use the produced insulin.
How do you get diabetes?
Type 1 diabetes has no known cause, although researchers agree that it is an autoimmune disease. There are many theories, a common one being that a virus may trigger the disease in people who may be susceptible to it in the first place.
Although you can’t generally cause type 1 diabetes, certain diseases may destroy the pancreas’s ability to work properly, or some medications may trigger the disease. It might be reversible if caused by a medication.
People at highest risk for type 1 diabetes are those:
- With a family history of type 1
- Who live in countries farther away from the equator (warmer countries tend to have lower rates of type 1)
- Who have a specific gene that seems to be related to developing the disease
While some people develop type 2 diabetes regardless of how healthy they are, many who develop it may have been able to reduce their risk by making some lifestyle changes.
People at the highest risk of developing type 2 include those who are :
- Over 45 years old
- Overweight or obese
- African American, Hispanic American, or Native Americans, all groups that have high rates of diabetes
- Not physically active
- Low HDL (“good”) cholesterol and/or high triglyceride levels
- High blood pressure
- Had gestational diabetes (diabetes while pregnant)
- Impaired glucose tolerance, as advised by their doctor
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has a Diabetes Risk Test that you could take to determine your risk.
Diabetes cannot be cured, but it can be managed. If you have type 1 diabetes, the only way to manage your blood glucose levels is by monitoring them, eating a diabetes-friendly diet, and injecting yourself regularly with insulin. Lifestyle changes are usually the first step in treating type 2, along with oral medications. These help your body use the insulin in your system. If your blood glucose levels are still too high, you may need to use insulin.
Given that the infection risk is higher than average for people with diabetes, it is essential that you watch for signs of sepsis should you become ill with a possible infection.
If you suspect sepsis, call 9-1-1 or go to a hospital and tell your medical professional, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.”
The information here is also available as a Sepsis Information Guide, a downloadable format for easier printing.
You can learn more about infection prevention among people who are immunocompromised by clicking here.
Would you like to share your story about sepsis or read about others who have had sepsis? Please visit Faces of Sepsis, where you will find hundreds of stories from survivors and tributes to those who died from sepsis.
Suggested Citation: Sepsis Alliance. Sepsis and Diabetes. 2023. https://www.sepsis.org/sepsisand/diabetes/
Updated February 7, 2023.