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Diabetes Information

Prevent diabetes problems: Keep your feet and skin healthy

On this page:

What are diabetes problems?

Too much glucose in the blood for a long time can cause diabetes problems. This high blood glucose, also called blood sugar, can damage many parts of the body, such as the heart, blood vessels, eyes, and kidneys. Heart and blood vessel disease can lead to heart attacks and strokes. You can do a lot to prevent or slow down diabetes problems.

This information is about feet and skin problems caused by diabetes. You will learn the things you can do each day and during each year to stay healthy and prevent diabetes problems.

Drawing of a foot and ankle showing bones, blood vessels, and nerves inside. A bone, a blood vessel, and a nerve are labeled. Drawing of a foot and ankle with a label pointing to the skin.
High blood glucose can cause feet and skin problems.
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What should I do each day to stay healthy with diabetes?

Drawing of a bowl containing bananas, grapes, and an apple. Follow the healthy eating plan that you and your doctor or dietitian have worked out.
Drawing of a silhouette of a woman who is walking. Be active a total of 30 minutes most days. Ask your doctor what activities are best for you.
Drawing of an open pill container on its side with some pills spilling out and an insulin bottle. Take your medicines as directed.
Drawing of a hand holding a blood glucose meter that reads 114. Check your blood glucose every day. Each time you check your blood glucose, write the number in your record book.
Drawing of two hands holding a bare foot. Check your feet every day for cuts, blisters, sores, swelling, redness, or sore toenails.
Drawing of a toothbrush with toothpaste on it and an open container of floss with some floss hanging out. Brush and floss your teeth every day.
Drawing of two arms with a blood pressure cuff around one arm. The hand of the other arm is holding the pump connected to the cuff. Control your blood pressure and cholesterol.
Drawing of a lit cigarette in a circle covered by a slash sign to show that smoking is not allowed. Don't smoke.
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How can diabetes hurt my feet?

High blood glucose from diabetes causes two problems that can hurt your feet:

  • Nerve damage. One problem is damage to nerves in your legs and feet. With damaged nerves, you might not feel pain, heat, or cold in your legs and feet. A sore or cut on your foot may get worse because you do not know it is there. This lack of feeling is caused by nerve damage, also called diabetic neuropathy. Nerve damage can lead to a sore or an infection.

  • Poor blood flow. The second problem happens when not enough blood flows to your legs and feet. Poor blood flow makes it hard for a sore or infection to heal. This problem is called peripheral vascular disease, also called PVD. Smoking when you have diabetes makes blood flow problems much worse.

These two problems can work together to cause a foot problem.

Drawing of a man working in a garden. He is standing with his left foot on the base of a shovel and digging in the dirt.
Make sure you wear shoes that fit well.

For example, you get a blister from shoes that do not fit. You do not feel the pain from the blister because you have nerve damage in your foot. Next, the blister gets infected. If blood glucose is high, the extra glucose feeds the germs. Germs grow and the infection gets worse. Poor blood flow to your legs and feet can slow down healing. Once in a while a bad infection never heals. The infection might cause gangrene. If a person has gangrene, the skin and tissue around the sore die. The area becomes black and smelly.

To keep gangrene from spreading, a doctor may have to do surgery to cut off a toe, foot, or part of a leg. Cutting off a body part is called an amputation.

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What can I do to take care of my feet?

Drawing of a woman dressed in a bathrobe who is sitting in a chair and checking the bottom of her left foot.
Look at your feet every day to check for problems.

  • Wash your feet in warm water every day. Make sure the water is not too hot by testing the temperature with your elbow. Do not soak your feet. Dry your feet well, especially between your toes.

  • Look at your feet every day to check for cuts, sores, blisters, redness, calluses, or other problems. Checking every day is even more important if you have nerve damage or poor blood flow. If you cannot bend over or pull your feet up to check them, use a mirror. If you cannot see well, ask someone else to check your feet.

  • If your skin is dry, rub lotion on your feet after you wash and dry them. Do not put lotion between your toes.

  • File corns and calluses gently with an emery board or pumice stone. Do this after your bath or shower.

  • Cut your toenails once a week or when needed. Cut toenails when they are soft from washing. Cut them to the shape of the toe and not too short. File the edges with an emery board.

  • Always wear slippers or shoes to protect your feet from injuries.

    Drawing showing two feet clad in slippers
    Always wear slippers or shoes to protect your feet.

  • Always wear socks or stockings to avoid blisters. Do not wear socks or knee-high stockings that are too tight below your knee.

  • Wear shoes that fit well. Shop for shoes at the end of the day when your feet are bigger. Break in shoes slowly. Wear them 1 to 2 hours each day for the first few weeks.

  • Before putting your shoes on, feel the insides to make sure they have no sharp edges or objects that might injure your feet.

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How can my doctor help me take care of my feet?

  • Tell your doctor right away about any foot problems.

  • Your doctor should do a complete foot exam every year.

  • Ask your doctor to look at your feet at each diabetes checkup. To make sure your doctor checks your feet, take off your shoes and socks before your doctor comes into the room.

    Drawing of a doctor talking with a male patient in an exam room. The doctor is standing. The male patient is dressed in an exam gown and has taken off his shoes and socks. The patient is sitting on an exam table.
    Take off your shoes and socks so your doctor will check your feet.

  • Ask your doctor to check how well the nerves in your feet sense feeling.

  • Ask your doctor to check how well blood is flowing to your legs and feet.

  • Ask your doctor to show you the best way to trim your toenails. Ask what lotion or cream to use on your legs and feet.

  • If you cannot cut your toenails or you have a foot problem, ask your doctor to send you to a foot doctor. A doctor who cares for feet is called a podiatrist.

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What are common diabetes foot problems?

Anyone can have corns, blisters, and other foot problems. If you have diabetes and your blood glucose stays high, these foot problems can lead to infections.

Drawing of a foot with arrows pointing to a corn and a callus. Corns and calluses are thick layers of skin caused by too much rubbing or pressure on the same spot. Corns and calluses can become infected.
Drawing of a foot with an arrow pointing to a blister. Blisters can form if shoes always rub the same spot. Wearing shoes that do not fit or wearing shoes without socks can cause blisters. Blisters can become infected.
Foot with an ingrown toenail. Ingrown toenails happen when an edge of the nail grows into the skin. The skin can get red and infected. Ingrown toenails can happen if you cut into the corners of your toenails when you trim them. You can also get an ingrown toenail if your shoes are too tight. If toenail edges are sharp, smooth them with an emery board.
Drawing of a foot with an arrow pointing to a bunion. A bunion forms when your big toe slants toward the small toes and the place between the bones near the base of your big toe grows big. This spot can get red, sore, and infected. Bunions can form on one or both feet. Pointed shoes may cause bunions. Bunions often run in the family. Surgery can remove bunions.
Drawing of the bottom of a foot with an arrow pointing to plantar warts. Plantar warts are caused by a virus. The warts usually form on the bottoms of the feet.
Drawing of a foot with an arrow pointing to a hammertoe. Hammertoes form when a foot muscle gets weak. Diabetic nerve damage may cause the weakness. The weakened muscle makes the tendons in the foot shorter and makes the toes curl under the feet. You may get sores on the bottoms of your feet and on the tops of your toes. The feet can change their shape. Hammertoes can cause problems with walking and finding shoes that fit well. Hammertoes can run in the family. Wearing shoes that are too short can also cause hammertoes.
Drawing of the bottom of a foot with an arrow pointing to dry and cracked skin. Dry and cracked skin can happen because the nerves in your legs and feet do not get the message to keep your skin soft and moist. Dry skin can become cracked. Cracks allow germs to enter and cause infection. If your blood glucose is high, it feeds the germs and makes the infection worse.
Drawing of the bottom of a foot with an arrow pointing to athlete's foot. Athlete's foot is a fungus that causes itchiness, redness, and cracking of the skin. The cracks between the toes allow germs to get under the skin and cause infection. If your blood glucose is high, it feeds the germs and makes the infection worse. The infection can spread to the toenails and make them thick, yellow, and hard to cut.

Tell your doctor about any foot problem as soon as you see it.

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How can special shoes help my feet?

Special shoes can be made to fit softly around your sore feet or feet that have changed shape. These special shoes help protect your feet. Medicare and other health insurance programs may pay for special shoes. Talk with your doctor about how and where to get them.

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How can diabetes hurt my skin?

Diabetes can hurt your skin in two ways:

  • If your blood glucose is high, your body loses fluid. With less fluid in your body, your skin can get dry. Dry skin can be itchy, causing you to scratch and make it sore. Also, dry skin can crack. Cracks allow germs to enter and cause infection. If your blood glucose is high, it feeds germs and makes infections worse. You may get dry skin on your legs, feet, elbows, and other places on your body.

    Drawing of a woman standing in front of a kitchen counter and drinking a glass of water.
    Drinking fluids helps keep your skin moist and healthy.

  • Nerve damage can decrease the amount you sweat. Sweating helps keep your skin soft and moist. Decreased sweating in your feet and legs can cause dry skin.

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What can I do to take care of my skin?

  • After you wash with a mild soap, make sure you rinse and dry yourself well. Check places where water can hide, such as under the arms, under the breasts, between the legs, and between the toes.
    Drawing of a container of skin lotion labeled lotion and a bar of soap labeled mild soap.
    Keep your skin moist by washing with a mild soap and using lotion or cream after you wash.

  • Keep your skin moist by using a lotion or cream after you wash. Ask your doctor to suggest one.

  • Drink lots of fluids, such as water, to keep your skin moist and healthy.

  • Wear all-cotton underwear. Cotton allows air to move around your body better.

  • Check your skin after you wash. Make sure you have no dry, red, or sore spots that might lead to an infection.

  • Tell your doctor about any skin problems.

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Pronunciation Guide

amputation (AM-pyoo-TAY-shuhn)

gangrene (GANG-green)

neuropathy (noo-ROP-uh-thee)

peripheral (puh-RIF-ur-uhl)

podiatrist (poh-DY-uh-trist)

vascular (VASS-kyoo-lur)

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For More Information

Drawing of a man seated at a table while talking on the phone and writing a note on a pad of paper.

Diabetes Teachers (nurses, dietitians, pharmacists, and other health professionals)

To find a diabetes teacher near you, call the American Association of Diabetes Educators toll-free at 1-800-TEAMUP4 (832-6874), or look on the Internet at www.diabeteseducator.org and click on "Find a Diabetes Educator."

Dietitians

To find a dietitian near you, call the American Dietetic Association toll-free at 1-800-877-1600, or look on the Internet at www.eatright.org and click on "Find a Nutrition Professional."

Government

The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) is part of the National Institutes of Health. To learn more about feet and skin problems, write or call the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Information Clearinghouse, 1 AMS Circle, Bethesda, MD 20892-3675, 1-877-226-4267 (toll-free); or see www.niams.nih.gov on the Internet.

To get more information about taking care of diabetes, contact

National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse
1 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892-3560
Phone: 1-800-860-8747
Fax: 703-738-4929
Email: ndic@info.niddk.nih.gov
Internet: www.diabetes.niddk.nih.gov

National Diabetes Education Program
1 Diabetes Way
Bethesda, MD 20892-3560
Phone: 1-800-438-5383
Fax: 703-738-4929
Internet: www.ndep.nih.gov

American Diabetes Association
1701 North Beauregard Street
Alexandria, VA 22311
Phone: 1-800-DIABETES (342-2383)
Internet: www.diabetes.org

Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International
120 Wall Street
New York, NY 10005-4001
Phone: 1-800-533-CURE (2873)
Internet: www.jdrf.org

This publication may contain information about medications used to treat a health condition. When this publication was prepared, the NIDDK included the most current information available. Occasionally, new information about medication is released. For updates or for questions about any medications, please contact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at 1-888-INFO-FDA (463-6332), a toll-free call, or visit their website at www.fda.gov. Consult your doctor for more information.

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More in the Series

The "Prevent Diabetes Problems" series has seven booklets that can help you learn more about how to prevent diabetes problems.

Pictures of the seven booklet covers in the Prevent Diabetes Problems Series.

For free single copies of these booklets, write, call, fax, or email the

National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse
1 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892-3560
Phone: 1-800-860-8747
Fax: 703-738-4929
Email: ndic@info.niddk.nih.gov

These booklets are also available at www.diabetes.niddk.nih.gov on the Internet.

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Acknowledgments

The National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse thanks the people who helped review or field-test this publication.

For the American Association of Diabetes Educators
Lynn Grieger, R.D., C.D.E.
Arlington, VT
Celia Levesque, R.N., C.D.E.
Montgomery, AL
Teresa McMahon, Pharm.D., C.D.E.
Seattle, WA
Barbara Schreiner, R.N., M.N., C.D.E.
Galveston, TX

For the American Diabetes Association
Phyllis Barrier, M.S., R.D., C.D.E.
Alexandria, VA
Linda Haas, Ph.C., R.N., C.D.E.
Seattle, WA
Kathleen Mahoney, M.S.N., R.N., C.D.E.
Drexel Hill, PA
Randi Kington, M.S., R.N., C.S., C.D.E.
Hartford, CT

For the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
Baltimore, MD
Jan Drass, R.N., C.D.E.

For the Diabetes Research and Training Centers
Albert Einstein School of Medicine
Norwalk Hospital
Norwalk, CT
Jill Ely, R.N., C.D.E.
Sam Engel, M.D.
Pam Howard, A.P.R.N., C.D.E.

Indiana University School of Medicine
Indianapolis, IN
Madelyn Wheeler, M.S., R.D., F.A.D.A., C.D.E.

VA/JDF Diabetes Research Center
Vanderbilt School of Medicine
Nashville, TN
Ok Chon Allison, M.S.N., R.N.C.S., A.N.P., C.D.E.
Barbara Backer, B.S.
James W. Pichert, Ph.D.
Alvin Powers, M.D.
Melissa E. Schweikhart
Michael B. Smith
Kathleen Wolffe, R.N.

For the Grady Health System Diabetes Clinic
Atlanta, GA
Ernestine Baker, R.N., F.N.P., C.D.E.
Kris Ernst, R.N., C.D.E.
Margaret Fowke, R.D., L.D.
Kay Mann, R.N., C.D.E.

For the Indian Health Service
Albuquerque, NM
Ruth Bear, R.D., C.D.E.
Dorinda Bradley, R.N., C.D.E.
Terry Fisher, R.N.
Lorraine Valdez, R.N., C.D.E.

Red Lake, MN
Charmaine Branchaud, B.S.N., R.N., C.D.E.

For the Medlantic Research Center
Washington, DC
Resa Levetan, M.D.

For the Texas Diabetes Council
Texas Department of Health
Austin, TX
Luby Garza-Abijaoude, M.S., R.D., L.D.

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National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse

1 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892–3560
Phone: 1–800–860–8747
TTY: 1–866–569–1162
Fax: 703–738–4929
Email: ndic@info.niddk.nih.gov
Internet: www.diabetes.niddk.nih.gov

The National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC) is a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). The NIDDK is part of the National Institutes of Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Established in 1978, the Clearinghouse provides information about diabetes to people with diabetes and to their families, health care professionals, and the public. The NDIC answers inquiries, develops and distributes publications, and works closely with professional and patient organizations and Government agencies to coordinate resources about diabetes.

This publication is not copyrighted. The Clearinghouse encourages users of this publication to duplicate and distribute as many copies as desired.


NIH Publication No. 08-4282
May 2008

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