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Type 2 diabetes cannot be cured, but there are effective treatments that have been proven in clinical studies to help control blood glucose levels, slowing the progression of the disease and preventing serious complications from developing. In some cases, early-stage diabetes can be reversed – put into remission – with treatment. Guidelines for type 2 diabetes treatments and medications are based on how high your blood glucose is, how well it is controlled, your age and overall health, and any other health conditions or medications that are being taken.
Studies have found that a large proportion of people with type 2 diabetes do not take their medications regularly or as directed, and at least 45 percent of those with type 2 diabetes fail to achieve blood glucose control. Stopping or underusing a medication allows blood sugar to rise, causing progressive damage that leads to worsening symptoms, complications such as blindness, kidney failure, and foot amputation, and a high risk for stroke and heart disease. For this reason, it is important to continue taking all medications as prescribed even if you feel better. If side effects bother you, talk to your doctor about switching medications or timing them differently. Set reminders and ask for help from family if you have trouble remembering to take your type 2 diabetes treatments.
Types of treatments for type 2 diabetes
Lifestyle changes, including losing weight, eating healthier, and getting more exercise, are considered first-line therapy for type 2 diabetes. These changes can have a significant impact on how fast insulin resistance progresses. Medications can help control blood sugar levels. Type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease, and at some point, you will likely need to begin using insulin to control your blood glucose levels.
Many people with type 2 diabetes are prescribed multiple medications that work together to better control blood glucose levels. For more details about specific diabetes treatments, visit Treatments A-Z.
Testing and tracking your blood glucose is a vital part of managing your type 2 diabetes. Regularly monitoring your blood sugar at home helps you better control your glucose levels and gives your doctor a clear picture of how well your medication is working. If you are taking your medications as directed, and your blood glucose is not under control, your doctor will be able to change the timing or dosage of medicine to be more effective.
Improving diet and increasing exercise are fundamental to the successful treatment of type 2 diabetes. Some people with type 2 diabetes can get their blood glucose under control with significant weight loss, changing eating habits, and increasing physical activity, without adding medications. Weight loss can lower levels of inflammation in the body that are believed to contribute to insulin resistance. Exercise raises the body’s sensitivity to insulin, lowering blood glucose levels, and also contributes to weight loss. Eating a lower-calorie diet results in weight loss. Changing the amount and type of carbohydrates you eat can help you maintain healthy blood glucose levels and eating fewer saturated fats can help control cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
There are 11 classes of medications approved for treating type 2 diabetes. Most are taken orally, while others are injected. Some diabetes medications need to be taken at a certain time of day, before or after meals, to be effective. Most diabetes medications can cause upset stomach and hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, as common side effects. Other side effects are specific to each drug or drug class. The most common classes of drugs prescribed for type 2 diabetes are highlighted below.
Metformin is the second-line treatment for high blood glucose in people with type 2 diabetes, after diet and exercise. Metformin is in a class called Biguanides, which are believed to work by decreasing the amount of glucose produced by the liver and making the muscle tissue more sensitive to insulin. Metformin is sold under brand names including Fortamet, Glumetza, and Riomet. If your blood glucose is not controlled with lifestyle changes and Metformin, guidelines indicate adding another medication or insulin. If this combination does not work to control blood glucose, the doctor will likely prescribe additional medications.
Sulfonylureas are believed to work by increasing the amount of insulin released by the pancreas. Sulfonylureas include Glyburide, sold under the brand names DiaBeta and Micronase, and Amaryl (Glimepiride).
Thiazolidinediones, also known as TZDs and glitazones, are believed to work by decreasing the amount of glucose released by the liver and making insulin more effective in muscle and fat tissues. Glitazones include Actos (Pioglitazone) and Avandia (Rosiglitazone).
Exenatide, sold as Byetta and Bydureon, is a glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor agonist and an incretin mimic. Exenatide mimes the effects of incretin, which signals the pancreas to make more insulin and prevents the liver from releasing glucose. Exenatide is believed to work by normalizing blood glucose levels. Exenatide also causes weight loss.
Drugs in the sodium-glucose transporter 2 (SGLT2) class are believed to work by causing excess glucose to be eliminated in the urine. Farxiga (Dapagliflozin), Invokana (Canagliflozin), and Jardiance (Empagliflozin) are SLGT2 medications.
Some people with a complex treatment regimen for type 2 diabetes may prefer to take a combination drug containing medications from more than one class. Taking one medication instead of several may prove more convenient and easier to remember. Examples of combination drugs include Actoplus Met (Pioglitazone/Metformin), Glucovance (Glyburide/Metformin), and Janumet (Sitagliptin/Metformin).
If medication plus improvements in diet and exercise fail to keep blood glucose levels in check, your doctor will likely suggest that you begin using insulin. Type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease, and the longer you have it, the more likely you are to need insulin, even if you do everything right. Insulin is just another way to control blood glucose.
When your doctor prescribes insulin, they will help you calculate the dosage and explain how to schedule your insulin doses. After you have used insulin for a while, your doctor will help you adjust the dosage for maximum effectiveness.
There are several types of insulin:
Taken before a meal
Effective in about 15 minutes
Taken before a meal
Effective in about 30 minutes
Taken twice a day
Effects last for 10 to 16 hours
Taken once a day
Effects last for 20 to 24 hours
Combines a shorter-acting insulin with a longer-acting insulin
Insulin is sold under many different brand names.
Insulin must be injected subcutaneously (into the skin); it is not effective if it is swallowed. Insulin injection areas include fleshy parts of the abdomen, thighs, buttocks, and the backs of the arms.
Insulin is absorbed most quickly when injected into the abdomen. Deeper injections provide more rapid effectiveness.
There are several different delivery methods for insulin.
There are many different types of syringe. Your doctor can help guide you in choosing the brand that is right for you. The barrel (the part that holds the liquid) must be large enough to hold a dose. The markings on the barrel must be legible for you. Needle gauge is another factor. The higher the number of the needle gauge, the smaller the needle will be. Some people find that smaller needles cause less pain.
Insulin pens are small, lightweight devices that resemble large ink pens. Most insulin pens have removable needles that should be replaced for each use. Insulin pens may be disposable or durable (refillable). Disposable pens come prefilled with insulin, while durable pens must be filled with insulin cartridges. Insulin pens may be easier to use while traveling because they can be kept at room temperature for several days.
Some people with type 2 diabetes have difficulty controlling their blood glucose levels even when taking insulin multiple times per day. An insulin pump may help some people in this situation maintain better blood glucose control. An insulin pump consists of a small computerized device (the pump) approximately the size of a cell phone, a flexible plastic tube, and a small needle. The needle is inserted into the skin of the abdomen and taped down. The tube connects the needle with the pump, which is worn on the belt or in a pocket. The pump is programmed to release insulin in two ways. Basal insulin is released slowly throughout the day, while bolus insulin is released at mealtimes.
Other treatments for type 2 diabetes
High blood glucose levels in type 2 diabetes damage the kidneys, sometimes to the point where they can no longer function well enough to keep you healthy. People with severe kidney damage require kidney replacement therapy such as dialysis. Types of dialysis include hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis.
Hemodialysis is a process of filtering waste products from the blood using a machine as an artificial kidney, known as a dialyzer. Hemodialysis can be done at a dialysis center, in a hospital, or at home. If you receive hemodialysis at a dialysis center, you will likely need to go two or three times each week. Hemodialysis will take three to five hours each time you go. If you do hemodialysis at home, you may choose more frequent treatments (four to seven times each week) for shorter periods of time.
In peritoneal dialysis, the peritoneum, or tissue lining your abdomen, is used to filter waste products from the blood. One advantage of peritoneal dialysis is that your body does not build up as much fluid and waste as it does with hemodialysis. Stress on your heart and arteries is reduced. It is also easier to maintain a normal work schedule with peritoneal dialysis since you do not need to spend hours at a dialysis center each week.
Some people with obesity and type 2 diabetes undergo bariatric surgery such as gastric bypass surgery (Roux-en-Y), adjustable gastric band (also known as the lap-band or LABG), or sleeve gastrectomy to lose weight. To be eligible for bariatric surgery, it is usually necessary to have a body mass index (BMI) over 35, or a lower BMI with medical complications such as poorly controlled diabetes. One study involving 20,000 people with type 2 diabetes who had received a gastric bypass surgery found that 84 percent of participants completely reversed their diabetes after surgery; they became able to maintain normal blood glucose levels without medication.
Amputation is sometimes a result of diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage), poor circulation, and infections in people with type 2 diabetes and poorly controlled blood glucose. Approximately 67 percent of amputations in the U.S. can be attributed to diabetes or a complication of diabetes. People with type 2 diabetes receive amputations 28 percent more often than people without diabetes. Most amputations involve lower extremities. The most common types of amputation are toe, foot, below the knee, and above the knee.
In people with end-stage kidney failure for whom dialysis is not a good option, a kidney transplant may be considered. A kidney transplant is a surgery to replace one diseased kidney with a healthy kidney from a living or deceased donor. After receiving a kidney transplant, you will need to take immunosuppressive medication for the rest of your life to prevent your body from rejecting the new organ.
People with type 2 diabetes are recommended to receive annual flu and pneumonia vaccines.
Complementary, alternative, and natural treatments
Some people with type 2 diabetes incorporate natural or holistic treatments and report relief from certain symptoms when they use complementary or alternative treatments such as acupuncture or herbal or nutritional supplements. Complementary treatments such as cinnamon, turmeric, vitamin D, or fish oil supplements are a few that have shown potential for reducing inflammation in people with type 2 diabetes. It is important to notify your doctor of any natural treatments you use, since some can interact with medications in dangerous ways, or make them less effective. Complementary therapies should not replace prescribed medications, which have been proven effective in clinical studies.
Can I get help paying for diabetes medication and supplies?
A person with type 2 diabetes pays an average of $13,741 each year for healthcare – twice the average cost for someone without diabetes – according to the American Diabetes Association. If you are facing high costs for insulin, other diabetes medication, or related supplies, there are several steps you can take to reduce costs. Ask your doctor whether there are cheaper versions of your medications, such as generics or biosimilars, that you could switch to. There are websites such as GoodRx that allow you to check prices for your medications at pharmacies in your area; prices for the same drug can vary significantly by pharmacy or location. Many pharmaceutical companies that make diabetes drugs and insulin offer patient assistance programs that can help connect you with resources. Some people with low income and no insurance may qualify for free medications. Finally, there are multiple nonprofit organizations that provide medications for a reduced cost or for free.
Can people with type 2 diabetes eat fruit? Sweets? Bread and pasta?
It is important that people with type 2 diabetes eat a healthy, balanced diet and control their intake of high-carbohydrate foods that cause a spike in blood glucose such as fruit, desserts, baked goods, and noodles. However, any food – including fruit, desserts, rice, bread, and pasta – can be eaten by someone with diabetes as part of a healthy, balanced diet. The key to good eating habits is to control portions, balancing the foods you eat and saving high-carb and high-calorie items for rare special occasions and offsetting any indulgences with plenty of exercise, which lowers blood glucose.
I’m afraid of needles! How can I deal with type 2 diabetes treatments?
Many people with type 2 diabetes can control their blood glucose with a combination of diet, exercise, weight loss, and oral medications. For those who need insulin but hate needles, there is one brand of insulin, Afrezza, that is inhaled instead of injected. If Afrezza is not appropriate for you, there are steps you can take to make injecting easier.
If you have been using a syringe, consider trying a preloaded insulin pen to inject instead. Only the very tip of the needle is visible, and it may be less daunting to use. You can also get used to injecting by practicing on objects such as fruit. Finally, ask your doctor or nurse for tips on how to improve your technique and make injecting as comfortable as possible. It may help to use a finer needle, allow the insulin to warm to room temperature first, and change your needle more frequently, since new needles are sharper and less painful. If you are not taking your insulin or other injected medications as often as you should due to needle phobia, let your nurse or doctor know so they can help you solve this problem.