Diabetes is a disease that affects how the body uses glucose,
the main type of sugar in the blood.
What Happens in Diabetes?
Our bodies break down the foods we eat into glucose and other nutrients we need,
which are then absorbed into the bloodstream from the gastrointestinal tract. The
glucose level in
the blood rises after a meal and triggers the pancreas
to make the hormone insulin
and release it into the bloodstream. But in people with diabetes, the body either
can't make or can't respond to insulin properly.
Insulin works like a key that opens the doors to cells and lets the glucose in.
Without insulin, glucose can't get into the cells (the doors are "locked" and there
is no key) and so it stays in the bloodstream. As a result, the level of sugar in
the blood remains higher than normal. High blood sugar levels are a problem because
they can cause a number of health problems.
What Is Type 1 Diabetes?
The two types of diabetes are type 1 and type 2.
Both make blood sugar levels higher than normal but they do so in different ways.
In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas loses its ability to make insulin because the
body's immune system
attacks and destroys the cells that produce insulin. No one knows exactly why this
happens, but scientists think it has something to do with genes. But just getting
the genes for diabetes isn't usually enough. A person probably would then have to
be exposed to something else — like a virus — to get type 1 diabetes.
In type 2 diabetes,
the pancreas still makes insulin but the body doesn't respond to it normally. Glucose
is less able to enter the cells and do its job of supplying energy (a problem called
This raises the blood sugar level, so the pancreas works hard to make even more insulin.
Eventually, this strain can make the pancreas unable to produce enough insulin to
keep blood sugar levels normal.
Who Gets Type 1 Diabetes?
Type 1 diabetes can't be prevented, and there is no real way to predict who will
get it. Nothing that either a parent or the child did caused the disease.
Once a person has type 1 diabetes, it does not go away and requires lifelong treatment.
Kids and teens with type 1 diabetes depend on daily insulin
injections or an insulin
pump to control their blood glucose levels.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes?
A person can have diabetes without knowing it because the symptoms aren't always
obvious and they can take a long time to develop. Type 1 diabetes may come on gradually
But kids or teens who develop type 1 diabetes may:
Need to pee a lot. The kidneys
respond to high levels of glucose in the blood by flushing out the extra glucose in
urine (pee). Kids with high blood sugar levels need to pee more often and make more
Drink a lot of liquids. Because they're peeing so often and losing
so much fluid, they can become very thirsty and drink a lot in an attempt to keep
the levels of body water normal.
Feel tired often. This is because the body can't use glucose
for energy properly.
Lose weight (or not gain weight as they grow). Kids and teens
with type 1 diabetes may have an increased appetite, but often lose weight because
the body breaks down muscle and stored fat in an attempt to provide fuel to the hungry
In some cases, other symptoms can be the signal that something is wrong. Sometimes
the first sign of diabetes is bedwetting
in a child who has been dry at night. Diabetes also should be suspected if a girl
who hasn't started puberty yet gets a vaginal
How Is Type 1 Diabetes Diagnosed?
Doctors can say for sure if a person has diabetes by testing blood samples for
glucose. When high blood sugars show that a child has diabetes, other blood tests
are usually done to help doctors find out if the child has type 1 or type 2 diabetes,
because management and treatment of the diabetes may differ based on type.
If diabetes is suspected or confirmed, the doctor may refer your child to a pediatric endocrinologist,
a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of kids with diseases of the
endocrine system, such as diabetes and growth disorders.
How Is Type 1 Diabetes Treated?
good diabetes control
to minimize symptoms; prevent health problems; and help kids have normal physical,
mental, emotional, and social growth and development. To do this, parents and kids
should aim to keep blood sugar levels within the goal range as much as possible.
In general, kids with type 1 diabetes need to:
take insulin as prescribed
eat a healthy, balanced diet with accurate carbohydrate counts
check blood sugar levels as prescribed
get regular physical activity
Following the treatment plan helps kids stay healthy, but treating diabetes isn't
the same as curing it. Right now, there's no cure for diabetes, so kids with type
1 diabetes will need treatment for the rest of their lives. But with proper care,
they should look and feel healthy and go on to live long, productive lives, just like
What Problems Can Happen With Type 1 Diabetes?
If early symptoms of diabetes are missed and treatment isn't started, chemicals
called ketones can build up in the blood and cause stomach pain, nausea, vomiting,
fruity-smelling breath, breathing problems, and even loss of consciousness. Sometimes
these symptoms are mistaken for the flu or appendicitis. Doctors call this serious
ketoacidosis, or DKA.
Diabetes also can cause long-term complications in some
people, including heart disease, stroke, vision impairment, and kidney damage. It
also can cause other problems throughout the body in the blood vessels, nerves, and
gums. While these problems don't usually show up in kids or teens who've had type
1 diabetes for only a few years, they can affect them in adulthood, particularly if
their diabetes isn't well controlled.
There's good news, though — proper treatment can stop or control these diabetes
symptoms and reduce the risk of long-term problems.
What's New in the Treatment of Type 1 Diabetes?
Doctors and researchers are developing new equipment and treatments to help kids
cope with the special problems of growing up with diabetes.
Some kids and teens are already using devices that make blood glucose testing and
insulin injections easier, less painful, and more effective. One of these is the insulin
pump, a mechanical device that can deliver insulin more like the pancreas
does. There's also been progress toward the development of a wearable or implantable
"artificial pancreas." This consists of an insulin pump linked to a device that measures
the person's blood glucose level continuously.
Doctors and scientists are investigating a potential cure for diabetes. This involves
transplanting insulin-producing cells into the body of a person with diabetes. Researchers
are also testing ways to stop diabetes before it starts. For example, scientists are
studying whether diabetes can be prevented in those who may have inherited an increased
risk for the disease.
How Can I Help My Child?
Parents can help their kids lead happier, healthier lives by giving constant encouragement,
learning what they can about diabetes, and making sure their children eat properly,
exercise, and stay on top of blood sugar control every day.
Kids and teens with diabetes need to monitor and control their glucose levels.
They need to:
check blood sugar levels a few times a day by testing a small blood sample
give themselves insulin injections, have an adult give them injections, or use
an insulin pump
eat a balanced, healthy diet and pay special attention to the amounts of sugars
and starches in the food they eat and the timing of their meals
get regular exercise
to help control blood sugar levels and help avoid some of the long-term health problems
that diabetes can cause, like heart disease
work closely with their doctor and diabetes health care team to get the best possible
be watched for signs of complications and other diabetes-related health problems
Living with diabetes is a challenge for anyone, but kids and teens often have special
issues to deal with. Young kids might not understand why they need blood
tests and medicines.
They might be scared, angry, and uncooperative.
Teens may feel different from their peers and want a more carefree lifestyle than
their diabetes allows. Even when they faithfully follow their treatment schedule,
they might feel frustrated if the natural body changes of puberty make their diabetes
somewhat harder to control.
Having a child with diabetes may seem overwhelming at times, but you're not alone.
If you have questions or problems, reach out to the diabetes
health care team — they can help with medical issues, and are there to support
and help you and your child.