Signs and symptoms

The classical symptoms of DM are polyuria (frequent urination), polydipsia (increased thirst) and polyphagia (increased hunger). Symptoms may develop quite rapidly (weeks or months) in type 1 diabetes, particularly in children. However, in type 2 diabetes symptoms usually develop much more slowly and may be subtle or completely absent. Type 1 diabetes may also cause a rapid yet significant weight loss (despite normal or even increased eating) and irreducible mental fatigue. All of these symptoms except weight loss can also manifest in type 2 diabetes in patients whose diabetes is poorly controlled, although unexplained weight loss may be experienced at the onset of the disease. Final diagnosis is made by measuring the blood glucose concentration.

When the glucose concentration in the blood is raised beyond its renal threshold (about 10 mmol/L, although this may be altered in certain conditions, such as pregnancy), reabsorption of glucose in the proximal renal tubuli is incomplete, and part of the glucose remains in the urine (glycosuria). This increases the osmotic pressure of the urine and inhibits reabsorption of water by the kidney, resulting in increased urine production (polyuria) and increased fluid loss. Lost blood volume will be replaced osmotically from water held in body cells and other body compartments, causing dehydration and increased thirst.

Prolonged high blood glucose causes glucose absorption, which leads to changes in the shape of the lenses of the eyes, resulting in vision changes; sustained sensible glucose control usually returns the lens to its original shape. Blurred vision is a common complaint leading to a diabetes diagnosis; type 1 should always be suspected in cases of rapid vision change, whereas with type 2 change is generally more gradual, but should still be suspected.

Patients (usually with type 1 diabetes) may also initially present with diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), an extreme state of metabolic dysregulation characterized by the smell of acetone on the patient's breath; a rapid, deep breathing known as Kussmaul breathing; polyuria; nausea; vomiting and abdominal pain; and any of many altered states of consciousness or arousal (such as hostility and mania or, equally, confusion and lethargy). In severe DKA, coma may follow, progressing to death. Diabetic ketoacidosis is a medical emergency and requires immediate hospitalization.

A rarer but equally severe possibility is hyperosmolar nonketotic state, which is more common in type 2 diabetes and is mainly the result of dehydration due to loss of body water. Often, the patient has been drinking extreme amounts of sugar-containing drinks, leading to a vicious circle in regard to the water loss.

A number of skin rashes can occur in diabetes that are collectively known as diabetic dermadromes.