If You Notice This on Your Skin, Get Checked for Diabetes

Both your dermatologist and GP should weigh in, experts say.

Having type 2 diabetes can affect just about every organ in the body, including your heart, brain, and kidneys. Yet many patients don't realize the high blood sugar levels associated with diabetes can also impact the body's largest organ—the skin—presenting with a range of dermatological symptoms. Now, experts are warning about one particular sign that may mean you have undiagnosed diabetes or prediabetes, or that your diabetes treatment is ineffective. Read on to find out which skin symptom could mean you need a diabetes screening, stat—and which treatment mistake you should never make.

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If you notice yellow, red, or brown patches on your skin, get checked for diabetes.

A confident male doctor sits across from an unrecognizable female patient and holds a medication. He gestures as he explains the new prescription.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AADA), there's one skin symptom that could signal serious problems with your blood sugar. The medical name for this particular condition is necrobiosis lipodica diabeticorum (NLD), a disorder of collagen degeneration. Experts from the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology explain that while the exact cause is unknown, "NLD usually occurs more often in people with diabetes, in people with a family history of diabetes or a tendency to get diabetes."

However, having the skin symptom alone isn't grounds for diagnosis. "Everybody who gets this does not necessarily have diabetes but they are more prone to getting diabetes than the general population," explains Reagan Anderson, MD, a board certified dermatologist with the AOCD. "So if you've been diagnosed with this, please talk to your local dermatologist as well as your primary care provider to see if testing for diabetes is appropriate for you."

RELATED: If You Notice This on Your Legs, Get Checked for Diabetes Now, Experts Say.

Here's what to look out for.

These lesions typically appear as small red bumps (akin to pimples) that turn into an oval patch of yellow, red, or brown skin. The affected area—most frequently found on the lower legs—may also harden or swell, the AADA notes.

Additionally, you may also notice changes in the surrounding skin, including "a shiny porcelain-like appearance," visible blood vessels, itchiness, or pain. The lesions may come or go in cycles of activity and inactivity, leaving patients to deal with fluctuations and flare-ups.

Certain treatments may be available to you. 

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Necrobiosis lipodica diabeticorum may respond to topical cortisone creams and cortisone injections. "Ultraviolet light treatment has been found to control this condition when it is flaring," says the experts from the AOCD. "A baby aspirin each day, and other medications that thin the blood, such as Trental, may help NLD. Other medications, including prednisone pills (steroids) are used in difficult or severe cases."

However, Anderson adds that where skin conditions are concerned, it's important not to rush into treatment before assessing the cause. "The important thing is to get the diagnosis, and then see if there are any underlying associated diseases," he said in a video segment called Your Daily Do's of Dermatology. "That's because the last thing we want to do as your dermatologist is to treat your skin and not treat what's going on underneath with the help of your local primary care doctor, and miss out on an opportunity to improve your health."

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Rare complications are associated with the condition.

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Because these lesions can be cyclical and chronic, patients sometimes experience complications when the skin symptom lingers. Mary Harding, MD, a U.K.-based general practitioner wrote in a professional reference article for Patient that there are two rare but potentially serious problems that can occur. "The most common complication is ulceration, but occasionally squamous cell carcinoma [a type of skin cancer] can arise in areas of long-standing necrobiosis lipoidica," warns Harding.

Speak with your doctor if you notice this rare skin symptom, both to address its underlying causes and its possible complications. If you have not been diagnosed with diabetes or prediabetes, ask your medical provider whether it may be time to get tested. And, if you have a known case of diabetes, consult your medical team about whether it may help to alter your treatment plan.

RELATED: If You See This on Your Nails, It Could Be a Tell-Tale Sign of Diabetes.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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