A woman checking her blood sugar level

Diabetes: Symptoms and risk factors

November is Diabetes Awareness Month in Canada. With close to 1.5 million Canadians currently living with diabetes or prediabetes, there is a need for greater awareness about the disease and its risk factors, signs and symptoms.

By the numbers

According to Diabetes Canada, among Canadians:

  • 29 % live with diabetes or prediabetes
  • 6.1 % are prediabetic and half will develop type 2 diabetes if they don’t make any changes
  • 1.5 million have type 2 diabetes and don’t know it
  • 1 out of 10 pregnant women will develop gestational diabetes

It has also been observed that:

  • Type 1 diabetes accounts for 5-10% of diabetes cases
  • Diabetes can shorten the lifespan by 5 to 15 years
  • People with diabetes are at least 3 times more likely to be hospitalized for cardiovascular disease
  • Health care costs directly related to diabetes could reach $4.9 billion by 2030

If you are over the age of 40, the Canadian Diabetes Association recommends you get checked every three years.

What is diabetes?

As defined by Diabetes Canada: "Diabetes is a disease in which your body either can't produce insulin or can't properly use the insulin it produces. Insulin is a hormone produced by your pancreas. Insulin's role is to regulate the amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood. Blood sugar must be carefully regulated to ensure that the body functions properly. Too much blood sugar can cause damage to organs, blood vessels, and nerves. Your body also needs insulin in order to use sugar for energy."

Types of diabetes

  • Type 1: Type 1 diabetes, also known as insulin dependent diabetes, is an autoimmune disease in which the pancreas does not produce insulin. People living with type 1 diabetes aren't able to control their blood glucose (sugar) and need daily insulin injections to have the right amount of insulin.
  • Type 2: Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes, representing 90% of cases. In this disease, the body cannot properly use the insulin that it produces or it doesn’t produce enough of it. It is most commonly developped in adulthood, but it can also occur in childhood. Type 2 diabetes can be managed through a healthy lifestyle but may also require medication or insulin therapy.
  • Gestational diabetes: This is a temporary form of diabetes that occurs during the second or third semester of pregnancy. It affects about 3% to 20% of all pregnancies, depending on risk factors. Gestational diabetes generally disappears after giving birth, but it may increase the risk of the mother and baby developing diabetes in the future.
  • Prediabetes: This is a condition where blood glocuose (sugar) levels are higher than normal, but are not yet high enough to be diagnosed as type 2 diabetes.

What are the risk factors?

People can reduce their chances of getting diabetes by understanding the risk factors associated with the disease and getting tested regularly.

Type 1 diabetes

Currently, the only proven risk factor for type 1 diabetes to date is having a parent or sibling with the disease. Studies are underway to determine if other genetic or environmental factors could also have an impact.

Type 2 diabetes

For type 2 diabetes, the risk factors are as follows:

  • Having a parent or sibling with the disease
  • Being 40 years of age or older
  • Being of African, Arab, Asian, Hispanic, Indigenous or South Asian descent
  • Being overweight;
  • Physical inactivity
  • Having been diagnosed with prediabetes
  • Having any of the following conditions: High levels of cholesterol, high blood pressure, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), obstructive sleep apnea, psychiatric disorders (schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder), acanthosis nigricans

To learn more about your risk factors for this disease, the Public Health Agency of Canada offers a test to determine if you are at risk for type 2 diabetes or prediabetes.

Gestational diabetes

The risk factors for gestational diabetes are:

  • Having a parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes
  • Being 35 years of age or older
  • Being of African, Arab, Asian, Hispanic, Indigenous or South Asian descent
  • Being overweight
  • Having given birth to a baby that weighed more than 4 kilograms (9 pounds)
  • Having been diagnosed with prediabetes or having a personal history of gestational diabetes
  • Having polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or acanthosis nigricans
  • Taking corticosteroids

Signs and symptoms of diabetes

There are many symptoms that could indicate diabetes. The most common symptoms include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Lack of energy or extreme fatigue
  • Unusual thirst
  • Sudden weight change (gain or loss)
  • Frequent urination
  • Recurring or frequent infections
  • Slower-than-normal healing from cuts and bruises
  • Numbness in the feet or hands
  • Erectile issues

Most of these symptoms are common to all types of diabetes. Signs and symptoms in children are similar. Be on the lookout for a lack of energy, excessive drinking, and more frequent urination; younger children may start to wet the bed again. It’s important to note that many people live with type 2 diabetes and do not display the common symptoms of the disease.

If you or any of your family members have any of these symptoms, contact your doctor right away.

Provincial health care and diabetes

Most provincial health care systems do not cover all the costs of medications or supplies for diabetics. To find out the terms and conditions for coverage of medication or supplies for blood glucose testing, refer to this factsheet developed by OHIP.

If you or a family member were recently diagnosed with diabetes, it is vital to get proper care. If you have an individual health insurance plan, it can help offset certain treatment and medical costs – such as some medication or supplies – that are not covered by provincial health care plans.

Disclaimer: Ontario Blue Cross®. is providing this blog for informational purposes only. References to any third-party products, services or professional associations do not constitute their endorsement or recommendation by Ontario Blue Cross.

Article updated November 13, 2020.