Medical Review By: Richard Levine, MD
If you have diabetes, you may know it can affect your heart, kidneys and nerves, particularly if the disease is poorly controlled. But did you know it can also cause dry, itchy skin?
An estimated 79% of people who have diabetes mellitus, the most common form, experience skin issues such as dryness, itching and infections. These can develop at any point during the course of the disease. In some cases, they may even be the first sign that a person has diabetes.
The connection between diabetes and itchy skin
Diabetes can make the body lose too much fluid through urination and evaporation through the skin. The result: dry, itchy skin that can be bothersome and sometimes uncomfortable.
Itching, especially in the lower legs and feet, can also be caused by poor circulation, which is common with diabetes. Some people experience a skin reaction to their diabetes medication or insulin injections.
In addition, itching can be brought on by diabetes complications including nerve damage, kidney disease and liver disease. Certain medications for other health problems common in people with diabetes, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, can make the skin itchy, too.
Scientists suspect that those with type 2 diabetes may be vulnerable to itchy skin (and also skin infections) for yet another reason: Their skin’s barrier function is impaired. Exactly how and why this happens is still being studied.
Diabetes and skin infections
Studies suggest that more than half of people with diabetes will develop a skin infection at some point.
Scratching and dryness can create cracks that let bacteria in. It’s not unusual for people with diabetes to develop bacterial infections such as folliculitis, boils and carbuncles.
Itchy fungal infections are also more likely in people with diabetes, possibly due to high blood sugar. Infections caused by the yeast-like fungus Candida albicans often crop up in areas with moist folds, such as the armpits, groin area, under the breasts and between the fingers and toes. Infections caused by mold-like fungi called dermatophytes include ringworm, jock itch and athlete’s foot.
Skin care tips for people with diabetes
If you have diabetes, good skin care is an important part of managing your disease. These tips can help keep your skin soft, calm and infection free.
Keep your blood sugar under control. Follow your doctor’s plan to manage your blood sugar levels. When your diabetes is well managed, your whole body, including your skin, benefits.
Take lukewarm showers and use a moisturizing soap. Hot baths and showers dry out the skin. Dry off well after your shower, especially under the arms and breasts and between the legs and toes.
Use a gentle moisturizer. A cream or ointment is preferable to a lotion since lotions contain more water. Ask your dermatologist for a recommendation. Don’t moisture between your toes.
Avoid scratching if you can. Scratching can create openings in the skin that let in bacteria.
Consider using a humidifier in winter. Dry air can make dry skin worse.
Wash minor cuts right away with mild soap and water. Talk to your doctor about using an antibiotic cream or ointment. Cover the cut with a bandage. Deep cuts require professional treatment.
Practice good foot care. Examine your feet daily. Look for any cuts, blisters or sores. Unless the wound is minor and heals on its own, see a doctor right away. When you cut your toenails, cut them straight across and not too short. Smooth the corners with a nail file if necessary.
Your dermatologist can help
A dermatologist can get to the bottom of why your skin is itching and offer treatment suggestions. He or she can also diagnose and treat other diabetes-related skin problems that don’t involve itching.
Prompt treatment of skin problems is especially important when you have diabetes. See a dermatologist or other doctor if you have signs of an infection. A bacterial infection may cause redness, pain, swelling and oozing. Fungal infections typically itch. The skin may also be red, scaly, swollen, or blistered.
If you develop severe itching, consult your dermatologist or diabetes doctor without delay. It could be a sign that your diabetes treatment plan isn’t working.
Article Written By: Jessica Brown, a health and science writer/editor based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Prevention, Johnson & Johnson, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, and many more.