Skin Complications of Diabetes

Diabetes patients have increased risk of skin problems

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

Diabetes can affect all parts of your body, even your skin. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), as much as 33 percent of diabetes patients will have a skin disorder in their lifetimes. Fortunately, skin complications can be prevented.

For some people, skin problems are the first sign of diabetes. They may develop a skin problem that anyone can have, such as fungal or bacterial infections.

However, some skin problems occur mostly or only in people with diabetes.

Regardless of the cause of the condition, people with diabetes have an increased risk of developing skin problems. Through keeping a close eye on your body and working with your doctor, you can prevent diabetes-related skin complications. And if you catch a skin condition early, it can often be easily treated.

General Skin Complications

Bacterial Infections

There was a time when bacterial infections could be deadly, especially for people with diabetes. In this day and age, death is uncommon, mainly due to the creation of antibiotics and better ways for patients to control their blood sugar.

Still, bacterial infections are more common in people with diabetes than the rest of the population. Luckily, good skin care can lower the risk of getting an infection.

Examples of bacterial infections affecting diabetes patients include:

  • styes, or infections of eyelid glands
  • boils
  • folliculitis, or hair follicle infections
  • carbuncles, or deep tissue skin infections
  • infections around the nails

Bacterial infections are caused by organisms, or living creatures. The most common infection-causing organism is Staphylococcus - a bacteria also known as staph.

Affected skin is often hot, swollen, red and painful.

Fungal Infections

People with diabetes have an increased risk of fungal infection. In most cases, diabetes-related fungal infections are caused by Candida albicans - a yeast-like fungus that can cause itchy, red and moist rashes, small blisters and scaly skin.

Other fungal infections that commonly affect people with diabetes include:

  • athlete's foot
  • jock itch
  • ringworm
  • vaginal infection

Talk to your doctor if you develop an infection. There are medications that can treat these conditions.

Diabetic Skin Conditions

Diabetic Dermopathy

Diabetes can cause changes to the small blood vessels that carry blood to the skin. These changes can lead to skin problems known as diabetic dermopathy.

Dermopathy often appears on the front of the legs as light brown or red, scaly patches. These patches do not hurt or itch. Dermopathy does not require treatment.

Necrobiosis Lipoidica Diabeticorum (NLD)

NLD is a rare complication. Like diabetic dermopathy, NLD may also be caused by changes to the blood vessels.

The spots caused by NLD may look like those of dermopathy, but they are bigger, deeper and fewer. At first, the spots may look dull and red. Over time, the spots can turn into a shiny scar with a violet rim.

In some cases, NLD can hurt and itch. The spots may even break open.

Unless your sores crack open, NLD does not require treatment. But if they do crack, go to your doctor for treatment.

Allergic Reactions

Allergic reactions can happen in response to eating certain foods or bug bites. They can also occur in response to diabetes medications, including insulin.

If you think you are having an allergic reaction to your diabetes drugs, tell your doctor immediately. In some cases, people having an allergic reaction need emergency treatment.

If you are taking insulin, keep a close on your injection spot. If you see rashes or bumps, you may be having an allergic reaction.


People with diabetes have an increased risk of atherosclerosis, a condition in which the arteries become narrowed or hardened. The narrowing of the arteries can cause changes to the skin.

Atherosclerosis can lead to hair loss, thinning and shiny skin, thickening and discoloration of the toenails and cold skin. Atherosclerosis also can make it harder for the legs and feet to heal after being injured.

Bullosis Diabeticorum (Diabetic Blisters)

In rare cases, diabetes can cause blisters that look like burn blisters. These blisters develop on the backs of fingers, hands, toes and feet. Sometimes the blisters occur on the legs and forearms.

While these blisters can be large, they do not hurt. The only way to get rid of diabetic blisters is to control your blood sugar levels. The blisters usually go away on their own in about three weeks.

Eruptive Xanthomatosis

Eruptive xanthomatosis also happens when diabetes is out of control. High levels of blood sugar and triglycerides (blood fats) lead to firm, yellow, pea-like bumps on the skin. Each bump is surrounded by a red halo and may itch. The bumps usually appear on the feet, arms, legs, buttocks and backs of the hands.

Treatment for eruptive xanthomatosis involves controlling blood sugar and lowering triglycerides in the blood.

Digital Sclerosis

Don't be mistaken: "digital" does not mean this is some future, sci-fi, cyborg skin condition. Rather, the word refers to your fingers and toes.

In digital sclerosis, the skin on your toes, fingers and hands hardens, becoming thick, waxy and tight. You may feel stiffness in the joints of your fingers.

To treat digital sclerosis, you must control your blood sugar. Some lotions and moisturizers can soften your skin.

Scleroderma diabeticorum

This condition is similar to digital sclerosis; but instead of the hardening of the skin of the hands, scleroderma diabeticorum affects the skin on the neck and upper back.

Sclerdoma diabeticorum usually develops in people who are overweight.

To treat the condition, patients should lose weight and control their blood sugar. Some creams can soften the skin.

Disseminated Granuloma Annulare

People with disseminated granuloma annulare develop ring- or arc-shaped areas on the skin. These raised areas usually appear on body parts far from the trunk, such as fingers or ears. The rashes may be red, red-brown or the color of your skin.

If you develop rashes like this, go to your doctor for treatment. There are medications that can rid you of this complication.

Acanthosis Nigricans

In acanthosis nigricans, people develop tan or brown raised areas that usually appear on the sides of the neck, armpits and groin. In some cases, the raised areas appear on the hands, elbows and knees.

This condition most often affects overweight people. Thus, treatment involves losing weight. Some patients find that lotions or moisturizers help the skin look better.

How to Prevent Skin Complications

Skin complications of diabetes can be irritating and, at times, dangerous. Fortunately, most diabetes-related skin conditions are both preventable and treatable.

The biggest part of preventing skin complications is controlling your diabetes, which means controlling weight, blood sugar and blood fats. By following your doctor's instructions about diet, exercise and medications, you can lower your risk of diabetes-related skin complications.

In addition, you can take care of your skin by avoiding too much sun and using lotions approved by your doctor.

Review Date: 
August 17, 2012