Blood sugar (glucose) control is imperative with diabetes. Elevated blood sugar levels can cause multiple symptoms, such as:
- increased thirst
- frequent urination
- blurry vision
You may also experience itching, which can be localized to the feet. Diabetes itch is often the result of poor circulation or diabetic neuropathy.
One 2010 study examined 2,656 people with diabetes and 499 people without diabetes. It found that itching was a common symptom, affecting about 11.3 percent of those with diabetes compared to only 2.9 percent of those who didn’t have the condition.
Itching might be common for some, and there are tips for controlling it. Read on to learn about common causes of itchy feet and ways to calm your skin.
Causes of itching
The goal of diabetes treatment is to control your blood sugar and keep it within a healthy range.
Your blood sugar can increase for different reasons. These include skipping or forgetting to take your diabetes medication, eating too many grams of carbohydrates, dealing with chronic stress, inactivity, or having an infection.
High blood sugar is sometimes the underlying cause of itchy feet. This is because uncontrolled blood sugar can lead to conditions that cause nerve damage and poor blood flow in the feet.
Diabetic peripheral neuropathy
Uncontrolled high blood sugar can damage nerve fibers in your legs and feet. This is known as diabetic peripheral neuropathy. Symptoms include numbness or an inability to feel pain, a tingling or burning sensation, and itchiness.
Neuropathy also prompts the immune system to release cytokines, which are proteins that help regulate inflammatory responses. These proteins can irritate nerves and cause itching.
Peripheral artery disease
Persistent high blood sugar also affects blood circulation in your legs and feet. This can lead to peripheral artery disease, a type of circulatory disorder.
Itching occurs because poor circulation makes you prone to dry skin, which is when the natural oils in the feet dry up. Signs of dry feet include rough, flaky, and cracked skin.
Other common skin issues
These conditions aren’t the only reasons for itchy feet. Diabetes may also put you at risk for other skin conditions, which also cause itching.
High blood sugar weakens the immune system, so there’s a chance of developing bacterial skin infections with diabetes. A cut, blister, or other break in the skin allows bacteria to enter your body. This puts you at risk for itchy skin infections like impetigo and folliculitis.
A topical or oral antibiotic applied to the affected area can kill the bacteria and help your skin heal.
Athlete’s foot is caused by candida, a yeast-like fungus that can develop in the moist folds of skin. A weak immune system also puts you at risk for these types of infections, which can itch and occur in between your toes.
Apply a topical antifungal cream to kill the fungus and stop the infection.
Necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum (NLD)
This inflammatory condition affects about 0.3 percent of people with diabetes. It’s the result of collagen damage caused by changes to the small blood vessels underneath the skin. Symptoms include thickening blood vessels, as well as painful, itchy raised spots or pimples.
NLD can occur on one or both shins, but it may also develop on other parts of the leg. You don’t have to treat the condition unless you have symptoms. A topical steroid cream or steroid injection can stop inflammation and get rid of these spots and pimples.
People with diabetic neuropathy are susceptible to diabetic blisters on their toes, feet, and other parts of their body. The cause is unknown, but blisters may develop when blood sugar is too high, and then triggered by friction or a skin infection.
Some blisters don’t cause symptoms like pain, but other blisters may itch. Diabetic blisters heal on their own and usually don’t require treatment. However, there’s a risk of an infection developing. Any blisters, callouses, or wounds should be carefully monitored for infection.
This condition is also the result of uncontrolled blood sugar. It causes yellow, pea-like bumps on the skin that can itch.
These bumps tend to appear on the:
Bumps disappear once blood sugar is under control.
Disseminated granuloma annulare
This skin condition causes ring or arch-like raised areas on different parts of the skin due to inflammation. They tend to appear on the:
The rash isn’t painful, but it can itch. It’ll disappear on its own within a few months, but you can apply a topical cortisone cream to help it go away sooner.
How to relieve itchy feet
Using a blood glucose monitor, taking your diabetes medication as directed, eating a well-balanced diet, and exercising can help keep your blood sugar within a safe range. These all promote healthy nerves and blood circulation, which can stop or relieve itching.
Other tips to manage itching include:
- Apply moisturizer to your skin several times a day, especially after taking a shower or bath.
- Take fewer showers or baths, maybe every other day.
- Shower or bathe in lukewarm water.
- Avoid skin products with harsh chemicals.
- Avoid fabrics that irritate your skin.
- Choose hypoallergenic detergents.
- Don’t apply lotion in between your toes.
How to prevent itchy feet
You can also take practical steps to prevent itchy feet before it starts. Prevention also starts with managing your blood sugar levels with medication, diet, and exercise.
Other prevention tips include:
- Completely dry your feet after bathing or showering, and apply moisturizer to your skin.
- To reduce the risk of skin infections, don’t scratch your feet.
- Use a humidifier in your home, especially in the winter.
- Examine your feet daily for scratches and cuts. Clean and bandage wounds daily.
- Wear properly fitting shoes to avoid injury or blisters.
- Limit water exposure. Take shorter showers.
- Avoid harsh soaps, which can dry out feet. Use cleansing gels or creams, instead.
When to see a doctor
Itchy feet are treatable at home with lifestyle changes, topical creams, and moisturizers. See a doctor if itchiness doesn’t improve or worsens.
You may also want to see a doctor if you have symptoms of diabetic neuropathy or peripheral artery disease.
The bottom line
Don’t ignore itchy feet if you have diabetes. This is sometimes a sign of uncontrolled blood sugar. If left untreated, there’s a risk of diabetes complications, including:
- nerve damage
- organ damage
- skin conditions
Set up an appointment with your doctor or endocrinologist. You can also search for a local certified diabetes educator for help on how to control your blood sugar.
See a dermatologist if high blood sugar isn’t the cause of your itchy feet.
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