Diabetes. Sure, you've heard of it. But how much do you really know about what it's like to live with it?
Teens with diabetes often say they feel isolated and alone. After all, it's hard enough being a teenager with all the body changes and hormone surges — dealing day-to-day with a health problem like diabetes can only make things harder. Having to test your blood sugar several times a day, keep tabs on what you eat, and give yourself insulin shots or other medicine is enough to make anyone feel self-conscious and different.
As a result, some people may want to pretend that their diabetes doesn't exist. That's not a good plan, because it usually leads to poorly controlled diabetes. And that can be dangerous to your friend's health.
As a friend, your understanding and acceptance are very important. The more you know about diabetes, the less self-conscious and alone your friend is likely to feel. And that's good for anyone's health!
What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease that affects how the body uses glucose. When you eat, glucose from the food gets into your bloodstream. Then, the pancreas makes a hormone called insulin that helps the glucose in the blood get into the body's cells, where it's used as fuel.
When people get diabetes, the glucose in their blood doesn't get into the cells as well as it should, so it stays in the blood instead. This makes blood sugar levels get too high and can lead to symptoms like getting very thirsty or peeing a lot.
Proper treatment of diabetes helps to control these symptoms. It also can help prevent long-term effects — like kidney, eye, nerve, or heart problems — that can happen in people who have high blood sugar levels for many years.
The two main types of diabetes that can occur during childhood or adulthood are:
Type 1 diabetes, which is when the pancreas can't make insulin. People with type 1 diabetes have to monitor their blood sugar levels and take insulin every day (usually several times a day) using a needle or an insulin pump.
Type 2 diabetes, which is when the pancreas makes insulin but it is either too little or the body can't respond to it properly (this is called insulin resistance). Most people who develop type 2 diabetes are overweight, since extra body fat causes a person to have insulin resistance. This is the most common type of diabetes in adults, but it's becoming more common in kids and teens, especially when they're overweight. Some people with type 2 diabetes have to inject insulin and/or take other medicine as a pill (insulin can't be given as a pill).
There's no cure for diabetes. But the good news is that the right treatment and care can keep diabetes under control so it doesn't interfere with school, social life, sports, or plans for the future. That's where you, good friend, come in!
What's a Friend to Do?
Get informed. Get the facts and get beyond the myths and misinformation by talking to your friend, your doctor, or relatives you know who have diabetes and by finding credible sources of information online.
Recognize that diabetes is not "weird" or the end of the world. Diabetes is a serious condition, but millions of people have it and still lead full, active lives. If your friend is having trouble accepting his or her diabetes, try to be supportive and understanding. You also can help your friend find out whether there are local support groups, camps, or after-school clubs for teens with diabetes. The American Diabetes Association has an online message board for teens with diabetes.
Encourage healthy habits. Your friend will have an easier time with blood sugar control by being active and limiting intake of foods that have a lot of extra sugar, like sugary soft drinks. Why not make healthy living a team effort? Cook and eat healthy meals together, walk or exercise together, and generally encourage each other to make healthy choices. Many people with type 2 diabetes have to watch their weight, so having a friend who supports their efforts to shed extra pounds can really help!
Help, but try not to nag. Be careful not to lecture or play a parental role when it comes to your friend's eating or taking care of diabetes. No one likes being told what to do and sometimes it can sound a lot like blame.
Know how to respond. If your friend's blood sugar level is low, sometimes you might be the first to notice because low blood sugar levels can cloud thinking. If your friend seems very tired, weak, or dazed, there could be a problem. Talk to your friend — say what you've noticed and ask if he or she needs to do a blood sugar check or eat something to bring blood sugar back up. If your friend seems really out of it, stay calm and notify an adult, like your teacher or school nurse if you're in school. Try to do this without calling too much attention to your friend, though — that could be embarrassing.
It's a good idea to make a plan with your friend about what to do before anything happens. A drop in blood sugar can make it harder for your friend to process information and take care of the situation.
Most of all, just be you. Your friend is still a normal teenager; diabetes doesn't change who he or she is. Try not to let the condition become the center of your lives or your friendship. Since diabetes is a part of who your friend is, you'll probably find you both talk about it — just like you talk about a friend's guitar skills or love of science. It's important to be there to talk to your friend about diabetes when he or she wants you to, but it's equally important to be yourself and share other experiences together.