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Frequent infections

Frequent infections can be a sign of diabetes. Uncontrolled high blood glucose has a negative affect on immune system function, making the body less able fight infection. Additionally, diabetes-related nerve damage and damage to blood vessels can combined with impaired immunity to work against the body’s ability to detect and fight infection.1

For this reason, people with diabetes tend to be at higher risk for developing infections and these infections tend to be more severe. The main types of infections that occur in people with diabetes include2:

  • Foot infections
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Fungal infections (affecting the mouth, skin and nails)
  • Bacterial infections of the skin and soft tissues
  • Influenza and pneumonia

Foot infections

People with diabetes are at higher risk for developing foot infections, both because of impaired immune system function and because nerve damage (neuropathy) can lead to loss of sensation, increasing risk for undetected injury. Additionally, peripheral artery disease (PAD), which is common in people with diabetes and involves clogging of the arteries that supply the feet, cuts the supply of blood to the feet, making wound healing slower and the delivery of antibiotics more difficult.

Urinary tract infections

Infections of the urinary tract, including the bladder and the kidney, are more common in people with diabetes. Signs of a bladder infection include increased frequency of urination and pain and burning during urination. Additionally, urine may also have blood in it and may be cloudy with an unpleasant odor. Kidney infections can occur at the same time as a bladder infection or follow a bladder infection. Signs include nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, and severe pain affecting the side or upper back. If you have experienced a bladder infection and develop symptoms that suggest a kidney infection, contact your doctor immediately.3

Infections of the skin and nails

Diabetes is associated with increased risk for several infections of the skin and nails, including onychomycosis, a fungal infection that affects the fingernails or toenails, tinea pedis, a fungal infection affecting the skin between toes, and cellulitis, a bacterial infection of the skin and underlying tissue.3

Influenza, pneumonia, and other infections

Because diabetes is associated with impaired immune system function—especially where blood glucose is uncontrolled—people with diabetes have increased risk for influenza, pneumonia, and several rare and serious infections that tend to occur almost exclusively in people with diabetes. Rare infections associated with diabetes include malignant external otitis, a severe type of ear infection, rhino cerebral mucormycosis, an infection of the sinuses or palate of the mouth associated with ketoacidosis, and emphysematous cholecystitis, a dangerous infection of the gallbladder.2,3

Learn more about diabetes-related infections.

Lowering your risk for infections

If you have diabetes, you are at increased risk for a range of infections. However, there are several simple, practical steps that you can take to protect yourself against the development of infections. The first is to keep your blood glucose under control. Your doctor will work with you to help you control your blood glucose, using lifestyle modifications, including a healthy, calorie-appropriate eating plan, regular physical activity, and weight loss, and, if these modifications are not enough, medication.

To lower you risk for infections, you should also practice good hygiene, including washing your hands frequently and covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, getting an influenza vaccine (unless you are allergic to the vaccine) every year

There are several other vaccines that you can get to protect against other infections, including shingles and pneumococcal pneumonia. Talk to your doctor about whether you might benefit from these vaccines.

Learn more about lifestyle modifications that I can use to help control my blood glucose.

Learn more about medications that I can use to help control my blood glucose.

Written by: Jonathan Simmons | Last reviewed: May 2014.
1. Patient information: Diabetes and infections (The Basics). UptoDate. Wolters Kluwer Health. Accessed at: 2013. -- 2. Weintrob AC, Sexton DJ. Susceptibility to infections in persons with diabetes mellitus. Weller PF, Thorner AR, eds. UptoDate. Wolters Kluwer Health. Accessed at: 2013. -- 3. Levin ME, Pfeifer MA, eds. The Uncomplicated Guide to Diabetes Complications. 3rd ed. Alexandria, VA: American Diabetes Association; 2009.