Common diabetes terms

Browse our A to Z list of diabetes terms and references


Acetone - a chemical (see ketone bodies) formed when the body breaks down fat instead of glucose for energy. Levels rise and acetone "spills" into the urine and is exhaled in the breath producing a "fruity" smell

Adrenal - a gland of the endocrine system that produces essential hormones including adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol

Adult-onset diabetes - another term sometimes used for type 2 diabetes

Albuminuria - occurs when a protein called albumin is found in the urine above a specified level - indicates potential kidney damage

Alpha cells - cells in the pancreas (the area called the islets of the Langherans), that produce the hormone glucagon which in turn raises blood glucose levels

Angiopathy - a disease of the blood vessels (arteries, veins, and capillaries) that occurs as a long-term complication of diabetes. Two types macroangiopathy and microangiopathy

Antibodies - substances occurring naturally in the body that help fight infection

Arteriosclerosis - thickening, hardening and narrowing of the arteries

Artheriosclerosis - see Arteriosclerosis

Artery - a blood vessel that carries blood away from the heart

Aspartame - a low calorie synthetic sweetener Asymptomatic no symptoms or sign of disease present


Background retinopathy - an early stage of diabetic retinopathy that usually does not impair vision - also referred to as "nonproliferative retinopathy"
Beta cells - the insulin producing cells of the pancreas

Blood pressure - is the force of the blood on the walls of arteries. Two levels of blood pressure are measured - the higher, or systolic, pressure, occurs each time the heart pushes blood into the vessels, and the lower, or diastolic, pressure, occurs when the heart rests. In a blood pressure reading of 120/80, 120 is the systolic pressure and 80 is the diastolic pressure. High blood pressure can lead to health problems such as heart attacks and strokes

Brittle diabetes - phrase used when a person's blood glucose (sugar) level often swings quickly from high to low and from low to high - also called labile and unstable diabetes


Callus - a hardened or thickened part of the skin caused by pressing or rubbing

Calorie - a measure of the energy value of foods. Now replaced by kilojoule: 1 calorie = 4.2 kilojoules

Candida - a yeast like fungus infection often affecting the female genital area

Capillary - smallest of the body's blood vessels Carbohydrate foods which contain sugars and starches

Cardiovascular - relating to the heart and blood vessels (arteries, veins, and capillaries)- the circulatory system

Cataract - clouding of the lens of the eye

Cell - the microscopic unit that forms the basis of all living things

Chemical diabetes - a term no longer used - see impaired glucose tolerance

Cholesterol - a steroid produced by the human body, which acts as the precursor for all steroid hormones. Too much cholesterol, however, may cause fat to build up in the artery walls and cause a disease that slows or stops the flow of blood

Claudication - pain in the calf muscles occurring on exercise and disappearing with rest. Caused by decreased blood supply

Coma - loss of consciousness from any cause. In diabetes may result from either very high or very low blood glucose levels

Creatinine - a waste product normally removed by the kidneys. The amount in blood and urine can show whether the kidney is functioning properly

Cyclamate - a low calorie artificial sweetener

Cystitis - an inflammation of the urinary bladder


Dawn - phenomenon a sudden rise in blood glucose levels in the early morning hours. This sometimes occurs in people with type 1 diabetes and rarely in people with type 2 diabetes

Dehydrated - great loss of water or fluid from the body. A very high level of glucose in the urine causes loss of a great deal of water, and the person becomes very thirsty

Dextrose - see glucose

Diabetes - insipidus a disease of the pituitary gland or kidney, but not diabetes mellitus. Socalled because most people who have it show most of the same signs as someone with diabetes mellitus-they have to urinate often, get very thirsty and hungry, and feel weak. However, they do not have glucose in their urine

Diabetic coma - a severe emergency in which a person is not conscious because the blood glucose is too low or too high. If the glucose level is too low, the person has hypoglycemia; if the level is too high, the person has hyperglycemia and may develop ketoacidosis

Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) - severe, out-of-control diabetes that needs emergency treatment. DKA happens when blood sugar levels get too high. This may happen because of illness, taking too little insulin, or getting too little exercise. The body starts using stored fat for energy, and ketone bodies (acids) build up in the blood.

Diabetic retinopathy - a disease of the small blood vessels of the retina of the eye. When retinopathy first starts, the tiny blood vessels in the retina become swollen, and they leak a little fluid into the center of the retina. The person's sight may be blurred. This condition is called background retinopathy. About 80 percent of people with background retinopathy never have serious vision problems, and the disease never goes beyond this first stage. However, if retinopathy progresses, the harm to sight can be more serious. Many new, tiny blood vessels grow out and across the eye. This is called neovascularization. The vessels may break and bleed into the clear gel that fills the center of the eye, blocking vision. Scar tissue may also form near the retina, pulling it away from the back of the eye. This stage is called proliferative retinopathy, and it can lead to impaired vision and even blindness

Dialysis - artificial removal of waste products from the blood when the kidneys fail

Digestion - breaking down food in the stomach and intestines

DKA - see diabetic ketoacidosis


Electrocardiograph (ECG) - the recording of the electrical activity of the heart

Endocrine glands - glands that produce chemicals (hormones) which affect other body cells

Enzyme - special type of protein. Enzymes help the body's chemistry work better and more quickly

Epinephrine - one of the secretions of the adrenal glands. It helps the liver release glucose and limit the release of insulin. It also makes the heart beat faster and can raise blood pressure; also called adrenalin

Exchanges - a grouping of foods by type to help people on special diets stay on the diet. Each group lists food in serving sizes. A person can exchange, trade, or substitute a food serving in one group for another food serving in the same group. The lists put foods in six groups: starch/bread, meat, vegetables, fruit, milk, and fats. Within a food group, each serving has about the same amount of carbohydrate, protein, fat, and calories


Fats - one of the three main classes of foods and a source of energy in the body. Fats help the body use some vitamins and keep the skin healthy. They also serve as energy stores for the body. In food, there are two types of fats: saturated and unsaturated

Fat atrophy - hollows (atrophy) or lumps (hypertrophy) that occur at sites of repeated insulin injection

Fibre - food substances found in cereals, fruits and vegetables that are not digested but help the function of the intestines

Fluorescein - a harmless yellow coloured dye that is used to outline the vessels of the eye

Fructosamine - a glycated protein like glycated haemoglobin that measures glucose control over the preceding 2 to 3 weeks

Fructose - a sugar found in fruits


Gangrene - death of body tissue usually caused by lack of blood supply

Gestational - referring to the period of pregnancy from conception to birth

Glomerulus - a tiny tuft of blood vessels that is part of the functional unit of the kidney

Glucagon - a hormone produced in the pancreas that increases blood glucose

Glucose - a simple sugar found in the blood. It is the body's main source of energy; also known as dextrose

Glucose tolerance test - a diagnostic test for diabetes involving a drink of glucose (after an overnight fast) followed by a series of blood glucose estimations over 2 hours

Glycated Haemoglobin - haemoglobin with glucose and other sugars chemically bound to it - also referred to as glycosylated haemoglobin. Haemoglobin A1c is a specific component of glycated haemoglobin

Glycosuria - the presence of glucose in the urine


Haemoglobin - the red coloured iron protein that carries oxygen in red cells

HLA - human leucocyte antigens which are natural markers on white cells much the same as blood groups on red cells

Hormone - a chemical substance produced by endocrine glands which causes specific effects on other cells

Hyperglycaemia - blood glucose higher than normal

Hyperosmolar coma - A coma related to high levels of glucose in the blood and requiring emergency treatment. A person with this condition is usually older and weak from loss of body fluids and weight. The person may or may not have a previous history of diabetes. Ketones (acids) are not present in the urine

Hypertension - high blood pressure

Hypoglycaemia - too low a level of glucose in the blood. This occurs when a person with diabetes has injected too much insulin, eaten too little food, or has exercised without extra food. A person with hypoglycemia may feel nervous, shaky, weak, or sweaty, and have a headache, blurred vision, and hunger. Taking small amounts of sugar, sweet juice, or food with sugar will usually help the person feel better within 10 to 15 minutes

Hypertrophy - see fat atrophy

Impaired glucose tolerance (IGT) - blood glucose levels higher than normal but not high enough to be called diabetes. People with IGT may or may not develop diabetes. Other names (no longer used) for IGT are "borderline," "subclinical," "chemical," or "latent" diabetes


Impaired glucose tolerance -  

Impotence - the inability in males to start, sustain or complete the act of sexual intercourse

Insulin - a hormone produced by the pancreas that lowers blood glucose

Insulin-dependent diabetes - see type 1 diabetes

IDDM - see type 1 diabetes

Insulin resistance - many people with noninsulin-dependent diabetes produce enough insulin, but their bodies do not respond to the action of insulin. This may happen because the person is overweight and has too many fat cells, which do not respond well to insulin. Also, as people age, their body cells lose some of the ability to respond to insulin

Intramuscular - administration of a medication through a needle into the muscles

Intravenous - administration of a medication through a needle into a vein

Islet cells (of Langerhans) - clusters of cells in the pancreas which include the beta (insulin producing) and alpha (glucagon producing) cells


Juvenile onset diabetes - see type 1 diabetes


Ketone bodies -  

Ketones - chemical substances from the breakdown of fat which can be dangerous in large amounts

Ketonuria - warns of ketoacidosis

Ketoacidosis - uncontrolled blood glucose and ketone levels that cause dehydration, concentration of body fluids, build-up of acids (acidosis) and coma (see diabetic ketoacidosis)


Lactic acidosis - a serious condition caused by the build-up of lactic acid which is produced from glucose when there is not enough oxygen. Similar effects as ketoacidosis

Lactose - a sugar found in milk

Laser - an intense narrow beam of light which can be used to heal damaged areas in the body (for example, blood vessels in the eye)


Macrovascular - referring to the large blood vessels

Maturity onset diabetes - see Type 2 diabetes

Metabolism - the physical and chemical changes occurring in the body

Microalbuminuria - leakage of small amounts of protein (albumin) into the urine. An early warning of kidney damage

Microvascular - referring to the small blood vessels

Millimole (mmol) - a measurement of the concentration of chemicals in the body

Monila - see Candida


Nephropathy - disease of the kidneys

Neuropathy - disease of the nerves

Non-insulin dependent diabetes - see type 2 diabetes

NIDDM - see type 2 diabetes


Obesity - the condition of severe overweight

Oral hypoglycaemic drug - medications taken by mouth that stimulate the release or improve the action of insulin


Pancreas - an organ behind the lower part of the stomach that is about the size of a hand. It makes insulin so that the body can use glucose (sugar) for energy. It also makes enzymes that help the body digest food. Spread all over the pancreas are areas called the islets of Langerhans. The cells in these areas each have a special purpose. The alpha cells make glucagon, which raises the level of glucose in the blood; the beta cells make insulin; the delta cells make somatostatin

Photocoagulation - using a special strong beam of light (laser) to seal off bleeding blood vessels such as in the eye. The laser can also burn away blood vessels that should not have grown in the eye. This is the main treatment for diabetic retinopathy

Polydipsia - a great thirst that lasts for long periods of time; a sign of diabetes

Polyphagia - great hunger; a sign of diabetes. People with this great hunger often lose weight

Polyuria - the passage of large amounts of urine

Portions - see exchanges

Prandial - referring to meals. Pre-prandial, before meals. Post-prandial, after meals

Proteinuria - too much protein in the urine. This may be a sign of kidney damage

Pruritus - itching


Renal - a term that means having something to do with the kidneys

Renal threshold - the blood glucose level above which glucose spills into the urine

Retinopathy - damage to the retina of the eye


Saccharin - a low calorie artificial sweetener

Somogyi effect - a rebound effect of low followed by high blood glucose caused by too much insulin

Sorbitol - a sugar used to sweeten foods

Subcutaneous - underneath the skin

Sucrose - a form of sugar that the body must break down into a more simple form before the blood can absorb it and take it to the cells

Sugars - simple carbohydrates which are sweet and occur widely in nature. For example fructose, glucose, lactose, sucrose


Thrush - see Candida

Thyroid - an endocrine gland in the base of the neck producing hormones controlling the body's metabolism

Triglyceride - a type of fat found in the blood and other parts of the body

Type 1 diabetes - where little or no insulin is made, usually occurring under the age of 30 and requiring insulin injections for life. Also known as insulin dependent and juvenile onset diabetes

Type 2 diabetes - insulin is present but doesn't work adequately. Usually occurs over the age of 30 and is controlled by diet and medication or diet and insulin. Also known as non-insulin dependent and maturity onset diabetes


Ulcer - a break in the skin; a deep sore. People with diabetes may get ulcers from minor scrapes on the feet or legs, from cuts that heal slowly, or from the rubbing of shoes that do not fit well. Ulcers can become infected

Ultralente insulin - a type of insulin that is long acting

Unit - the basic measure of insulin. U-100 insulin means 100 units of insulin per millilitre (mL) or cubic centimeter (cc) of solution

Uraemia - build-up of poisons because of kidney failure

Urine testing - checking urine to see if it contains glucose and ketones. Special strips of paper or tablets (called reagents) are put into a small amount of urine or urine plus water. Changes in the color of the strip show the amount of glucose or ketones in the urine. Urine testing is the only way to check for the presence of ketones, a sign of serious illness


Vein - a blood vessel that carries blood to the heart


Xylitol - a sweetener found in plants and used as a substitute for sugar