Risk factors for gestational diabetes
Any pregnant woman can develop gestational diabetes, but some women are at greater risk than are others. Risk factors for gestational diabetes include:
- Age. Women older than age 25 are at increased risk.
- Family or personal history. Your risk increases if you have prediabetes — a precursor to type 2 diabetes — or if a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, has type 2 diabetes. You're also at greater risk if you had gestational diabetes during a previous pregnancy, if you delivered a very large baby or if you had an unexplained stillbirth.
- Weight. Being overweight before pregnancy increases your risk.
- Race. For reasons that aren't clear, women who are black, Hispanic, American Indian or Asian are more likely to develop gestational diabetes.
Long-term complications of diabetes develop gradually. The longer you have diabetes — and the less controlled your blood sugar — the higher the risk of complications. Eventually, diabetes complications may be disabling or even life-threatening. Possible complications include:
- Cardiovascular disease.Diabetes dramatically increases the risk of various cardiovascular problems, including coronary artery disease with chest pain (angina), heart attack, stroke and narrowing of arteries (atherosclerosis). If you have diabetes, you are more likely to have heart disease or stroke.
- Nerve damage (neuropathy). Excess sugar can injure the walls of the tiny blood vessels (capillaries) that nourish your nerves, especially in the legs. This can cause tingling, numbness, burning or pain that usually begins at the tips of the toes or fingers and gradually spreads upward. Left untreated, you could lose all sense of feeling in the affected limbs. Damage to the nerves related to digestion can cause problems with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation. For men, it may lead to erectile dysfunction.
- Kidney damage (nephropathy). The kidneys contain millions of tiny blood vessel clusters (glomeruli) that filter waste from your blood. Diabetes can damage this delicate filtering system. Severe damage can lead to kidney failure or irreversible end-stage kidney disease, which may require dialysis or a kidney transplant. The rates of serious kidney disease have dropped significantly in recent years, likely due to improvements in diabetes management.
- Eye damage (retinopathy). Diabetes can damage the blood vessels of the retina (diabetic retinopathy), potentially leading to blindness. Diabetes also increases the risk of other serious vision conditions, such as cataracts and glaucoma.
- Foot damage. Nerve damage in the feet or poor blood flow to the feet increases the risk of various foot complications. Left untreated, cuts and blisters can become serious infections. Severe damage might require toe, foot or even leg amputation.
- Skin and mouth conditions. Diabetes may leave you more susceptible to skin problems, including bacterial and fungal infections. Gum infections also may be a concern, especially if you have a history of poor dental hygiene.
- Osteoporosis. Diabetes may lead to lower than normal bone mineral density, increasing your risk of osteoporosis.
- Alzheimer's disease. Type 2 diabetes may increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease. The poorer your blood sugar control, the greater the risk appears to be. One theory is that cardiovascular problems caused by diabetes could contribute to dementia by blocking blood flow to the brain or causing strokes. Other possibilities are that too much insulin in the blood leads to brain-damaging inflammation, or lack of insulin in the brain deprives brain cells of glucose.
- Cancer. People with diabetes have a higher risk of some cancers. But the reasons aren't clear. It may be that the factors that increase the risk of type 2 diabetes also increase the risk of cancer, or it may be a factor of the disease or its treatment. This is an active area of research, but in the meantime, no changes in treatment are recommended.
Complications of gestational diabetes
Most women who have gestational diabetes deliver healthy babies. However, untreated or uncontrolled blood sugar levels can cause problems for you and your baby.
Complications in your baby can occur as a result of gestational diabetes:
- Excess growth. Extra glucose can cross the placenta, which triggers your baby's pancreas to make extra insulin. This can cause your baby to grow too large (macrosomia). Very large babies are more likely to require a C-section birth.
- Low blood sugar. Sometimes babies of mothers with gestational diabetes develop low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) shortly after birth because their own insulin production is high. Prompt feedings and sometimes an intravenous glucose solution can return the baby's blood sugar level to normal.
- Respiratory distress syndrome. If your baby is delivered early, respiratory distress syndrome — a condition that makes breathing difficult — is possible. Babies who have respiratory distress syndrome may need help breathing until their lungs become stronger.
- Jaundice. This yellowish discoloration of the skin and the whites of the eyes may occur if a baby's liver isn't mature enough to break down a substance called bilirubin, which normally forms when the body recycles old or damaged red blood cells. Although jaundice usually isn't a cause for concern, careful monitoring is important.
- Type 2 diabetes later in life. Babies of mothers who have gestational diabetes have a higher risk of developing obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life.
- Death. Untreated gestational diabetes can result in a baby's death either before or shortly after birth.
Complications in you can also occur as a result of gestational diabetes:
- Preeclampsia.This condition is characterized by high blood pressure, excess protein in the urine, and swelling in the legs and feet. Preeclampsia can lead to serious or even life-threatening complications for both mother and baby.
- Subsequent gestational diabetes. Once you've had gestational diabetes in one pregnancy, you're more likely to have it again with the next pregnancy. You're also more likely to develop diabetes — typically type 2 diabetes — as you get older.
Complications of prediabetes
Prediabetes may develop into type 2 diabetes.
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your primary care doctor if you're having diabetes symptoms. If your child is having diabetes symptoms, you might see your child's pediatrician. If blood sugar levels are extremely high, you'll likely be sent to the emergency room. If blood sugar levels aren't high enough to put you or your child immediately at risk, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in diabetes, among other disorders (endocrinologist).
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment and to know what to expect.
What you can do
- Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. When you make the appointment, ask if there's anything you need to do in advance. This will likely include restricting your diet, such as for a fasting blood sugar test.
- Write down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated.
- Write down key personal information, including major stresses or recent life changes. If you're monitoring your glucose values at home, bring a record of the glucose results, detailing the dates and times of testing.
- Make a list of any allergies you have and all medications,vitamins and supplements you're taking.
- Record your family medical history. In particular, note any relatives who have had diabetes, heart attacks or strokes.
- Take a family member or friend, if possible. Someone who accompanies you can help you remember information you need.
- Write down questions to ask your doctor. Ask about aspects of your diabetes management you're unclear about.
- Be aware if you need any prescription refills. Your doctor can renew your prescriptions while you're there.
Preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of your time with your doctor. For diabetes, some questions to ask include:
- Are the symptoms I'm having related to my diabetes or another condition?
- What tests do I need to best manage my diabetes?
- What else can I do to protect my health?
- What are other options to manage my diabetes?
- I have other health conditions. How can I best manage these conditions together?
- Are there restrictions I need to follow?
- Should I see another specialist, such as a dietitian or diabetes educator?
- Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing?
- Are there brochures or other printed material I can take with me? What websites do you recommend?
Don't hesitate to ask any other questions you have.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as:
- When did you begin being concerned about having diabetes? What symptoms alerted you?
- Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
- How severe are your symptoms?
- Do you have a family history of preeclampsia or diabetes?
- Tell me about your diet.
- Do you exercise? What type and how much?