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Living Well

Health Risks for Young Diabetics

Last updated: Sep 21, 2015

Experimentation with appearance and lifestyle is a normal rite of passage for teenagers and young adults.  For example, a 2010 Pew Research study found that nearly 40 percent of young people between the ages of 18 and 29 have tattoos, and of those half have two to five tattoos.1 In addition, 68 percent of Millennials say marijuana should be legal2, and the vast majority of that group are cannabis users.

“Behaviors and habits that are par for the course for the majority of Millennials may have a detrimental effect on teenagers and twenty-somethings with diabetes,” says Tara Peterson-Gurak, RN, of Summit Medical Group’s Diabetes Live Well Program.


Tattoos are not necessarily taboo for diabetics, but there’s a long checklist to follow in order to get tattooed with a modicum of safety.  Most important is having stable blood sugar. High blood sugar levels can make healing difficult and increase the risk of infection.  In fact, blood sugar levels may rise even as the “body art” is being created.3

Any diabetic considering a tattoo should keep these safety basics in mind:

  • Avoid a large and complex design. These take a long time to make, which increases the pain and stress involved.
  • Avoid areas of the body that have poorer circulation.  These include:
    • Buttocks
    • Shins
    • Ankles
    • Feet

Never tattoo common sites for insulin injections, such as arms, abdomen and thighs. Tattoos in these places usually take longer to heal, which can lead to complications like infection.

However, there is one type of tattoo that may prove lifesaving for diabetics: a medical alert tattoo that clearly identifies the wearer as a diabetic and gives his or her date of birth.  

Body Piercings

In a study published in 2012 regarding university undergraduates in the USA, 4 percent of male and 16 percent of female students reported having had their tongue pierced4 and those numbers are increasing annually. Body piercings are documented to lead to complications that are more serious for diabetics than for the general population.  Local infections are not uncommon—many caused by body piercing studios with questionable hygienic practices.

Potentially harmful body-piercing consequences can put diabetics into the hospital almost before they can say “stud.”  Of particular concern are piercings in the tongue, nose, eyebrows, belly button and nipples.  Specific hazards include:

  • Tongue – The tongue swells after a piercing, making it difficult to eat.  In addition, tongue piercings have been known to sever large blood vessels and cause trauma to nerve tissue.
  • Nose - Disinfecting prior to piercing, and cleanliness after piercing may be difficult due to the wet mucosal surfaces on the interior of the nose
  • Eyebrow – There is risk of nerve damage beneath the brow.
  • Nipple and belly button – These places have an especially slow healing time.

Risks from external procedures like tattooing and piercing are equaled by the health issues associated with drinking.


Although most people with diabetes can drink a moderate amount of alcohol, moderation is not the name of the game in college bars and at frat parties.

Is it drunkenness or hypoglycemia?  Both have similar symptoms: sleepiness, dizziness and disorientation.  

Diabetics out for a night of partying must be especially vigilant about testing their blood glucose levels.  Staying on top of glucose levels is normally a challenge—but being responsible about health is even more difficult in the middle of a party.  

It’s especially critical to check blood glucose before bed time if you’ve been drinking.  Make sure it is at a safe level—and eat something to raise your levels before you go to sleep for the night if you need to. Alcohol may lessen your resolve to stay on track with healthy eating. If you plan to have a glass of wine at dinner or if you are going out for the night, plan ahead so you'll be able to stick to your usual meal plan and won't be tempted to overindulge.

Make sure to wear a medical alert bracelet and establish a buddy system with a friend who is aware of your condition.


Of all substances, including alcohol, marijuana is the most controversial in the scientific community because some studies have cited benefits of cannabis use while others have linked frequent marijuana smoking in youth as one possible cause of pre-diabetes in middle age.

A number of animal-based have suggested the marijuana can stabilize blood sugar, keep blood vessels open to improve circulation and ease the pain of neuropathy, a common side effect of diabetes. (6)

However, a 2015 study published in the academic journal Diabetologia concluded that “Compared with young adults who had never smoked marijuana, those who had used it more than 100 times were 40% more likely to develop prediabetes by the time they were middle aged.”(7)

Whatever the form of experimentation, the wisest course for young diabetics is to slow down and proceed with caution—not always a simple feat for the teenage brain.

for more information
contact Summit Medical Group’s 
Diabetes Live Well Program.


1.    Pflum, Mary. "Tattoos and Teens." ABC News. ABC News Network, 11 Oct. 2010. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

2.    Motel, Seth. "Six Facts About Marijuana." Pew Research Center RSS. Pew Research Center, 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

3.    UK, Diabetes. "Tattoos and Diabetes." Diabetes UK, UK Diabetes Resource., 09 Apr. 2013. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.ibid

4.    ibid.

5.    Association, American Diabetes. "Alcohol." American Diabetes Association. American Diabetes Association, 6 June 2014. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

6.    UK, Diabetes. "Marijuana Use and Diabetes." Diabetes UK, UK Diabetes Resource., 09 Mar. 2012. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

7.    Bancks, Michael, et al. “Marijuana use and risk of prediabetes and diabetes by middle adulthood: the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA).” Diabetologia, 13 Sept. 2015. Web. 16 Sept. 2015