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How Diabetes Affects Wound Healing

Scrapes and blisters are an unavoidable part of daily life. If you have diabetes, though, even most harmless injuries can lead to serious problems. Here’s how to stay safe.

Updated February 16, 2021

By Jean Davidson, DO, Endocrinologist – Virtua Endocrinology

Minor cuts, scrapes, and blisters are an unavoidable part of everyday life. If you’re living with diabetes, though, even innocuous injuries can lead to serious problems.

A nonhealing wound may be prone to an infection that could spread to another part of the body and become life-threatening.

What takes so long?

When you have diabetes, your body can't produce or use insulin, a hormone that allows the body to turn glucose (sugar) into energy. High blood sugar levels can lead to:

  • An impaired immune system. White blood cells key to your immune system can't function efficiently, reducing the body’s ability to heal wounds and fight infection.
  • Poor circulation. Your blood vessels become narrowed and hardened. Blood flow slows, making it difficult for the body to deliver oxygen and nutrients to a wound.
  • Nerve damage (neuropathy). Over time, high blood sugar damages the nerves, most commonly in the hands and feet, making you less able to feel the pain of a wound that needs treatment.

Even if a wound doesn't develop an infection, its slow healing can greatly affect your overall health and quality of life. Keeping your blood sugar under control can help reduce your risk.

Step up for your health

To help prevent troublesome wounds:

  • Manage your blood glucose by eating a healthy diet, taking medication as prescribed, exercising daily, and not smoking.
  • Check your feet daily for cuts, blisters, sores, redness, swelling, warm spots, ingrown toenails, and other changes to your skin or nails.
  • See a podiatrist regularly to check for nonhealing or infected sores.
  • Wash your feet daily with soap and warm water. Dry them well. Apply lotion to the tops and bottoms of your feet, but not in between your toes.
  • Trim your toenails straight across, not rounded at the corners. If you have difficulty seeing or reaching your toes, see a podiatrist every eight to nine weeks to cut your toenails.
  • Wear comfortable, well-fitting, closed-toe shoes. Check the inside of your shoes or pebbles or other objects.
  • Promote blood flow to your lower limbs. Prop up your feet while sitting. Wiggle your toes and ankles around.

Since even the smallest untreated blister can snowball into an infection that spreads to the bone or leads to gangrene, prevention is key. If you do develop a wound that won’t heal, see your podiatrist or a wound healing specialist. They provide the latest therapies to help you heal.

Do you need treatment for a wound?

Learn more about Virtua’s wound healing centers in Mount Holly, Voorhees, and Willingboro. The wound healing team uses advanced therapies like hyperbaric oxygen to treat diabetic foot ulcers, pressure injuries, osteomyelitis, and other nonhealing wounds.