How does type 2 diabetes progress over time? Type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease, meaning that the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar gets worse over time, despite careful management. Over time, the body’s cells become increasingly less responsive to insulin (increased insulin resistance) and beta cells in the pancreas produce less and less insulin (called beta-cell burnout). In fact, when people are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, they usually have already lost up to 50% or more of their beta cell function. As type 2 diabetes progresses, people typically need to add one or more different types of medications. The good news is that there are many more choices available for treatments, and a number of these medications don’t cause as much hypoglycemia, hunger and/or weight gain (e.g., metformin, pioglitazone, DPP-4 inhibitors, GLP-1 agonists, SGLT-2 inhibitors, and better insulin). Diligent management early on can help preserve remaining beta cell function and sometimes slow progression of the disease, although the need to use more and different types of medications does not mean that you have failed.
Along with following your diabetes care plan, you may need diabetes medicines, which may include pills or medicines you inject under your skin, such as insulin. Over time, you may need more than one diabetes medicine to manage your blood glucose. Even if you don’t take insulin, you may need it at special times, such as during pregnancy or if you are in the hospital. You also may need medicines for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or other conditions.
In this health topic, we discuss hyperglycemic hyperosmolar nonketotic syndrome (HHNS), an extremely serious complication that can lead to diabetic coma and even death in type 2 diabetes. This serious condition occurs when the blood sugar gets too high and the body becomes severely dehydrated. To prevent HHNS and diabetic coma in type 2 diabetes, check your blood sugar regularly as recommended by your health care provider; check your blood sugar more frequently when you are sick, drink plenty of fluids, and watch for signs of dehydration.