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Diabetes and slow-healing or nonhealing wounds

Less than optimal blood glucose levels can cause a plethora of complications throughout the body, but one of the more serious health issues is slow-healing or nonhealing wounds.

When a healthy person is wounded, the blood vessels in the area usually allow oxygen-rich blood and nutrients to travel to the site of the break in the skin. Infection-fighting white blood cells help the wound heal, broken blood vessels are repaired and tissue regrows.

However, that process can be delayed when a person with diabetes has less than optimal blood glucose levels long-term. If diabetes is not well-managed, the result can be a perfect storm of related complications that can allow wounds to heal slowly — or not at all. Elevated blood glucose causes the arteries to stiffen and narrow. As a result, oxygen-rich blood and infection-fighting white blood cells have a hard time reaching wounds, which delays healing.

Less than optimal blood glucose levels can also cause a condition called diabetic neuropathy which damages the nerves and causes a loss of sensation. Because of neuropathy associated with diabetes, many people who experience wounds — particularly on the feet — don’t realize they’re injured which may delay treatment. This, combined with a weakened immune system that places people with diabetes at a higher risk for infection, allows serious skin and tissue conditions, such as gangrene and sepsis, to develop, potentially leading to amputation.

  • In the Case of an Infection

    If you notice the following signs or symptoms accompanying a wound, you may have developed an infection.

    • Changing color to become black, blue or white
    • Drainage
    • Fever
    • Foul odor
    • Pus 
    • Redness, swelling or warmth
    • Worsening pain

    Calling your diabetes care provider if you suspect you have an infection is important for prompt treatment. Antibiotics or hospitalization may be necessary.

  • Reducing the Risk

    Healthy lifestyle habits can help reduce the likelihood that you will develop ulcers related to diabetes. Specifically, limit your alcohol consumption, keep cholesterol and blood glucose in check, and if you smoke, take steps to quit. Also wear comfortable socks and shoes that fit well and check your feet daily for cracks, cuts and bruises. If you notice anything unusual, consult with your diabetes care provider.

    For more information about programs and services available at UK Barnstable Brown Diabetes Center, call 859-323-BBDC (2232). Select option 1 for the adult clinic; option 2 for the pediatric clinic; or option 3 for diabetes education services.