Diabetes and Skin Problems

People with diabetes can experience a number of complications, including skin problems. If you are diabetic and you notice any changes in your skin, nails or scalp, it’s important to bring these changes to the attention of your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment. Skin conditions related to diabetes include:

  • Bacterial Infections
  • Fungal Infections
  • Itching
  • Allergic Reactions
  • Diabetic Dermopathy
  • Necrobiosis Lipoidica Diabeticorum
  • Complications of Atherosclerosis
  • Diabetic Blisters (Bullosis Diabeticorum)
  • Eruptive Xanthomatosis
  • Digital Sclerosis
  • Disseminated Granuloma Annulare
  • Acanthosis Nigricans

Diabetes and Bacterial Infections

If you have diabetes, you may be more susceptible to developing bacterial infections of the eyelid such as styes, infections of the nails and infections of the hair follicle such as boils, carbuncles and folliculitis.

Symptoms of bacterial skin infections include swollen, red, painful areas on the skin or around the nails. The most common cause of bacterial skin infections in diabetics is the Staphylococcus bacteria, or staph infection. Bacterial infections are usually treated with oral and/or topical antibiotic medications.

Diabetes and Fungal Infections

The most common fungal skin infections in people with diabetes include athlete’s foot, jock itch and ringworm. Athlete’s foot occurs on the skin between the toes, while jock itch typically appears on the genitals and inside of the thighs. Ringworm may occur in a number of areas, including the groin, feet, chest, abdomen, nails or scalp.

These fungal skin infections are usually caused by a yeast-like fungus called Candida albicans, which often occurs in warm, moist regions of the skin such as between the fingers and toes, in the corners of the mouth, in the vagina (in women), under the foreskin (in uncircumcised men), and in the armpits and groin. Your doctor will prescribe an anti-fungal medication to treat the infection.

Diabetes and Itchy Skin

Diabetes can cause pruritus, a condition that causes your skin to itch due to factors such as dry skin, a fungal yeast infection, or poor circulation in the lower legs and feet. You can usually treat itchy skin yourself just by using a mild soap and moisturizer (preferably hypo-allergenic).

Diabetes and Allergic Reactions

If you start a new type of injectable insulin or oral diabetes medication and you notice a change in your skin such as a rash or swelling at the injection site, you might be having an allergic reaction. If so, contact your doctor immediately.

Diabetic Dermopathy

Dermopathy is a skin condition that develops when diabetes affects the blood vessels that supply the skin. The condition typically appears on the front of the lower legs (shins) as round, light brown, scaly patches of skin and is not at all harmful or painful, and doesn’t  require treatment.  

Necrobiosis Lipoidica Diabeticorum

Necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum (NLD), a rare diabetic skin condition that is more common in women, may occur as a result of changes in the blood vessels. The disease appears on the lower legs as raised, shiny red-brown patches with a yellowish center in which open sores may develop. NLD may be active for a while, then go away and reappear again in cycles. If the sores open, you should seek treatment from your doctor, who will likely prescribe a cortisone cream or injection.  

Complications of Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis, a heart disease characterized by a buildup of plaque in the arteries, can affect the skin and nails of the lower extremities in people with diabetes. As the blood vessels that supply blood to the skin become narrower and less oxygen reaches the skin, the skin may become thin and shiny, especially on the shins. Hair loss may occur. Skin and toes grow cold, while toenails become thickened and discolored. Injuries to the legs and wounds on the feet heal more slowly because of the decreased blood supply and infection-fighting white blood cells.

Diabetic Blisters (Bullosis Diabeticorum)

Bullosis Diabeticorum is a rare skin condition that causes blisters to erupt in people with diabetes. These blisters resemble burn blisters and typically occur on the fingers, hands, toes, feet, legs or forearms, most often in those who have diabetic neuropathy. Despite their appearance, these sores are painless and heal by themselves. The only treatment is to normalize blood glucose levels.

Eruptive Xanthomatosis

Eruptive xanthomatosis is a diabetic skin condition that presents as firm, yellow, bumps about the shape and size of a pea. These bumps typically appear on the hands, feet, arms, legs, and buttocks and occur in younger males who have type 1 diabetes and poorly-controlled blood sugars, as well as a high level of cholesterol and fat in the blood. The bumps will disappear when blood glucose and triglyceride levels are brought under control.

Digital Sclerosis

This condition occurs most often in people with type 1 diabetes that is not well-controlled. It appears as thick, tight, waxy skin on hands, fingers and toes. Finger joints may also become stiff. The skin will return to normal when blood sugar levels are regulated.

Disseminated Granuloma Annulare

This skin condition is characterized by a red, red-brown, or skin-colored rash that appears as well-defined ring-shaped or arc-shaped areas on the skin. This rash most often occurs on the fingers or ears and may be treated with an over-the-counter or prescription-strength topical steroid medication such as hydrocortisone.

Acanthosis Nigricans

Acanthosis nigricans is a skin condition that causes tan or brown wart-like spots to appear on the neck, armpits, under the breast and groin. The condition typically affects those who are morbidly obese and is considered to be a marker for diabetes (symptom of prediabetes). There is no cure for acanthosis nigricans, but losing weight may improve the condition.

Preventing Diabetic Skin Conditions

If you have diabetes, the most important thing you can do to prevent skin problems is to keep your blood sugar levels under control and check daily for any changes in the appearance of your skin.