Your diabetes dictionary: A guide to understanding medical jargon


Do you zone out when someone starts using medical jargon? Here are some simple explanations so you can keep yourself in the know with diabetes terminology.

When you or someone you love is diagnosed with diabetes, healthcare professionals may start using terms you're unfamiliar with. Clue yourself up on the basics with this handy guide.

What is diabetes and how does it develop?

In a normal body, food is broken down into glucose, which provides energy. The hormone insulin, which is produced by the pancreas, enables the body to use glucose. When the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or when the body is unable to respond normally to the insulin, glucose cannot get into the body's cells to use as energy.

Since your body can no longer use the glucose from your food as energy, it accumulates in your blood, causing blood glucose (blood sugar) levels to rise. This leads to diabetes and serious health complications, such as heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure, and nerve damage that can result in amputation.

Diabetes can be categorised in three ways:

  1. Type 1 diabetes is genetic and occurs when the beta-cells (insulin-producing cells) of a person's pancreas are damaged. People with type 1 diabetes need insulin injections to control their blood sugar. Type 1 affects about 5% to 10% of the population with diabetes.
  2. Type 2 diabetes is also genetic, but is often triggered by lifestyle factors, and so is preventable. In particular, if a person is inactive or overweight, the pancreas battles to produce enough insulin to control rising blood sugar levels. Most people with diabetes have type 2.
  3. Gestational diabetes is when a high blood sugar level is first recognised during pregnancy. Usually, levels return to normal after the baby is born. Gestational diabetes can increase complications during labour and delivery. Women who have had gestational diabetes also have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

Your A - Z of diabetes terminology

  • Hyperglycaemia: High blood sugar. This condition is fairly common in people with diabetes. It occurs when the body does not have enough insulin or cannot use the insulin it has.
  • Hypoglycaemia: Low blood sugar. The condition also often occurs in people with diabetes. Most cases occur when there is too much insulin and not enough glucose in your body.
  • Insulin: A hormone produced by the pancreas that helps the body use sugar for energy. The beta cells of the pancreas make insulin.
  • Insulin pump: A small, computerised device – about the size of a small cell phone - that is worn on a belt or put in a pocket to help make insulin treatment more convenient. Insulin pumps have a small flexible tube with a fine needle on the end. The needle is placed under the skin of the abdomen and taped in place. A carefully measured, steady flow of insulin is released into the body.
  • Insulin resistance: When the insulin has less of an effect on muscle, fat, and liver cells. This occurs with both insulin produced in the body and with insulin injections. Higher levels of insulin are then needed to lower blood sugar.
  • Ketones: One of the products of fat-burning in the body. When there is not enough insulin, your body is unable to use sugar (glucose) for energy and your body breaks down its own fat and protein. When fat is used, acid ketones turn up in your urine and blood. A lot of ketones in your system can lead to the serious condition called ketoacidosis.
  • Kidney disease (nephropathy): Changes in the very small blood vessels in the kidneys cause scarring of the kidneys, which can eventually lead to kidney failure. People who have had diabetes for a long time may develop nephropathy. An early sign of nephropathy is when proteins can be detected in the urine.
  • Lancet: A fine, sharp needle for pricking the skin for blood sugar monitoring.
  • Neuropathy: Nerve damage. People who have had diabetes that is not well controlled may develop nerve damage.
  • Obesity: A term used to describe excess body fat. It is defined in terms of a person’s weight to height ratio or body mass index (BMI). A BMI over 30 is classified as being obese. Obesity makes your body less sensitive to insulin’s action. Extra body fat is a risk factor for diabetes.
  • Oral Glucose Tolerance Test (OGTT): A screening test for diabetes in which plasma glucose levels are measured after the patient consumes an oral glucose load.
  • Pancreas: An organ behind the lower part of the stomach that makes insulin so the body can use sugar for energy.
  • Periodontal disease: Damage to the gums and tissues around the teeth. People with diabetes are more likely to have periodontal disease.
  • Peripheral neuropathy: A result of damage to your peripheral nerves. This often causes weakness, numbness and pain, usually in your hands and feet.
  • Retina: The centre part of the back lining of the eye that senses light. Its many small blood vessels can be affected when a person has diabetes for a long time.
  • Retinopathy: A disease of the blood vessels in the retina.

Find the motivation to manage diabetes with DiabetesCare

Managing diabetes can be tricky, but it's well worth it, given how much you do so can improve your quality of life. To help, we've put together a well-coordinated programme that integrates Discovery Health's clinical tools and networks with Vitality's preventive screening and incentive structures.


Family history is an important part of any person's health information. MyFamilyHistory makes it easy for you to record it. The information you provide will be used to estimate your risk of developing certain common health conditions at some time in your life:

Cancer of the breast, colon/rectum, prostate, melanoma and other hereditary cancers

Type 2 diabetes

Heart disease



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