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Diabetes can affect many parts of your body, including your skin. When diabetes affects the skin, it’s often a sign that your blood sugar (glucose) levels are too high. This could mean that:
If you notice any of the following warning signs on your skin, it’s time to talk with your doctor.
This skin condition often begins as small raised solid bumps that look like pimples. As it progresses, these bumps turn into patches of swollen and hard skin. The patches can be yellow, reddish, or brown. You may also notice:
The medical name for this condition is necrobiosis lipodica (neck-row-by-oh-sis lee-poi-dee-ka).
A dark patch (or band) of velvety skin on the back of your neck, armpit, groin, or elsewhere could mean that you have too much insulin in your blood. AN is often a sign of prediabetes. The medical name for this skin condition is acanthosis nigricans (ay-can-THOE-sis NIE-gri-cans).
TAKE ACTION: Get tested for diabetes.
When this develops on the fingers, toes, or both, the medical name for this condition is digital sclerosis (sclear-row-sis).
On the hands, you’ll notice tight, waxy skin on the backs of your hands. The fingers can become stiff and difficult to move. If diabetes has been poorly controlled for years, it can feel like you have pebbles in your fingertips.
Hard, thick, and swollen-looking skin can spread, appearing on the forearms and upper arms. It can also develop on the upper back, shoulders, and neck. Sometimes, the thickening skin spreads to the face, shoulders, and chest.
In rare cases, the skin over the knees, ankles, or elbows also thickens, making it difficult to straighten your leg, point your foot, or bend your arm. Wherever it appears, the thickened skin often has the texture of an orange peel.
This skin problem usually develops in people who have complications due to diabetes or diabetes that is difficult to treat.
It’s rare, but people with diabetes can see blisters suddenly appear on their skin. You may see a large blister, a group of blisters, or both. The blisters tend to form on the hands, feet, legs, or forearms and look like the blisters that appear after a serious burn. Unlike the blisters that develop after a burn, these blisters are not painful.
The medical name for this condition is bullosis (bull-low-sis) diabetricorum. Sometimes, it’s called diabetic bullae (bull-lie).
People who have diabetes tend to get skin infections. If you have a skin infection, you’ll notice one or more of the following:
A skin infection can occur on any area of your body, including between your toes, around one or more of your nails, and on your scalp.
Having high blood sugar (glucose) for a long time can lead to poor circulation and nerve damage. You may have developed these if you’ve had uncontrolled (or poorly controlled) diabetes for a long time.
Poor circulation and nerve damage can make it hard for your body to heal wounds. This is especially true on the feet. These open wounds are called diabetic ulcers.
This skin condition causes spots (and sometimes lines) that create a barely noticeable depression in the skin. It’s common in people who have diabetes. The medical name is diabetic dermopathy (der-mop-ah-thē). It usually forms on the shins. In rare cases, you’ll see it on the arms, thighs, trunk, or other areas of the body.
The spots are often brown and cause no symptoms. For these reasons, many people mistake them for age spots. Unlike age spots, these spots and lines usually start to fade after 18 to 24 months. Diabetic dermopathy can also stay on the skin indefinitely.
When these bumps appear, they often look like pimples. Unlike pimples, they soon develop a yellowish color. You’ll usually find these bumps on the buttocks, thighs, crooks of the elbows, or backs of the knees. They can form anywhere though.
No matter where they form, they are usually tender and itchy. The medical name for this skin condition is eruptive xanthomatosis (zan-tho-ma-toe-sis).
Whether this skin condition is associated with diabetes is controversial. We know that most people who have granuloma annulare (gran-you-low-ma ann-you-lar-ē) do not have diabetes.
Several studies, however, have found this skin condition in patients who have diabetes. One such study found that people with diabetes were most likely to have granuloma annulare over large areas of skin and that the bumps came and went. Another study concluded that people who have granuloma annulare that comes and goes should be tested for diabetes.
If you have diabetes, you’re more likely to have dry skin. High blood sugar (glucose) can cause this. If you have a skin infection or poor circulation, these could also contribute to dry, itchy skin.
These develop when you have high fat levels in your blood. It can also be a sign that your diabetes is poorly controlled. The medical name for this condition is xanthelasma (zan-thē-las-ma).
Many people have skin tags — skin growths that hang from a stalk. While harmless, having numerous skin tags may be a sign that you have too much insulin in your blood or type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes can cause many other skin problems. Most skin problems are harmless, but even a minor one can become serious in people who have diabetes. A dermatologist can recognize skin problems due to diabetes and help you manage them.
Images 1, 3, 7, 8, 9: Used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides.
Images used with permission of Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology:
2. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2007; 57:502-8
6. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2008; 58:447-51.
Images 4 and 5: Thinkstock
Cohen Sabban, EN. “Cutaneous manifestations of diabetes mellitus from A to Z.” Focus session presented at: 74th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology; March 4-8, 2016; Washington DC.
Duff M, Demidova O, et al. “Cutaneous manifestations of diabetes mellitus.” Clinical Diabetes. 2015;33:40-8.
Kalus AA, Chien AJ, et al. “Diabetes mellitus and other endocrine disorders.” In: Wolff K, Goldsmith LA, et al. Fitzpatrick’s Dermatology in General Medicine (seventh edition). McGraw Hill Medical, New York, 2008:1461-70.
McKinley-Grant L, Warnick M, et al. “Cutaneous manifestations of systemic disease.” In: Kelly AP and Taylor S. Dermatology for Skin of Color. (first edition). The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. China, 2009:481-4.
Morgan AJ and Schwartz RA. “Diabetic dermopathy: A subtle sign with grave implications.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2008;58:447-51.
Yosipovitch G, Loh KC, et al. “Medical pearl: Scleroderma-like skin changes in patients with diabetes mellitus.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2003;48:109-11.