What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease that makes it hard for your body to convert food to energy.

Normally, after you eat, your body breaks food down into glucose (also known as “blood sugar”) which your blood carries to cells throughout your body. Your cells use insulin, a hormone made in your pancreas, to help them convert blood glucose into energy.

You can develop diabetes when:

  • Your pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin
  • Your cells develop insulin resistance, which means they can’t use insulin properly

When either (or both) of these things happen, your blood glucose levels begin to rise, while your cells are starved of energy.

Over the years, high blood glucose, also called hyperglycemia, damages your nerves and blood vessels. This can lead to complications like heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, dental disease, blindness, and nerve problems, which can lead to amputation.

There are two main types of diabetes, commonly referred to as Type 1 and Type 2. Type 2 is most often associated with HIV/AIDS.

For more information, see the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse’s Diabetes Overview.

Signs and Symptoms

If your blood glucose levels are too high, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • Increased thirst
  • Increased hunger
  • Increased urination
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in vision

If you have noticed these changes—especially if you have started antiretroviral therapy—please contact your primary care or HIV provider.

The HIV Connection

After antiretroviral drugs became available in the mid-1990s, healthcare providers began to notice a big jump in the number of HIV-positive people with insulin resistance and diabetes. Researchers found that certain HIV meds, such as protease inhibitors, increase your risk for insulin resistance and diabetes.

In addition to HIV meds, there are some other factors that may increase your risk for insulin resistance or diabetes:

  • Hepatitis C coinfection
  • Family history of diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Inactivity or sedentary lifestyle
  • Ethnicity (You are at greater risk if you are African American, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, or Native American)
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Current pregnancy

If any of these risk factors apply to you, please see your primary care provider for proper screening and evaluation.

Diabetic Before You Were Diagnosed with HIV?

If you had diabetes before you were diagnosed with HIV, you will need to monitor your blood glucose levels even more carefully now—and you will also need to be watched for heart disease. Recent studies suggest that people who had diabetes before they contracted HIV have higher rates of heart disease.

Your healthcare provider can give you more information about medications and lifestyle changes that can keep you healthy.

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Frequently Asked Questions

My parents had diabetes and I am on a protease inhibitor. Does that mean I will get diabetes?

Not necessarily. Family history is an important risk factor for developing diabetes, especially if you have other risk factors too. But no one can be 100% sure that you will or won’t develop diabetes. That’s why it’s important to consult a healthcare provider who can monitor you for signs and symptoms of insulin resistance and diabetes. You can also take steps to prevent diabetes, including exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet.

For more information, see CDC’s National Diabetes Education Program.

Do all people with diabetes have to take insulin?

No. Many people can control their diabetes with a combination of diet, exercise, and oral medications. For those who can’t, insulin is a very safe and effective means of controlling high blood sugar. Talk to your healthcare provider for information about treatments for diabetes.

Additional Resources

Last revised: 07/30/2009