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What Is Type 1 Diabetes? 7 Things To Know

Medically reviewed by Sarika Chaudhari, M.D., Ph.D.
Written by Emily Wagner, M.S.
Posted on February 7, 2024

If you or your child has recently been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, you probably have many questions. How is type 1 diabetes treated? Will I or my child be able to live a normal life? This article aims to help by providing information on seven key aspects of type 1 diabetes that you should be aware of.

People with type 1 diabetes (previously known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes) have high blood sugar (blood glucose) because their body doesn’t make enough of the hormone insulin. This hormone helps your body convert the sugar in your blood into energy. If you don’t have enough insulin, sugar can build up in your blood and damage your organs.

Learning more about type 1 diabetes is the first important step in effectively taking care of your own health or that of your child. Here are seven facts you should know about type 1 diabetes.

1. Type 1 Diabetes Is an Autoimmune Disease

An autoimmune disease is a condition when your body’s immune system — which usually attacks harmful germs — mistakenly attacks your body’s healthy cells. If someone has type 1 diabetes, their immune system attacks and destroys the healthy insulin-producing cells in the pancreas called beta cells.

Autoantibodies are responsible for marking beta cells for destruction. Autoantibodies are specialized immune proteins that attack healthy cells instead of harmful bacteria or viruses. When enough beta cells have been destroyed, the pancreas can’t make any insulin.

Without insulin, the body can’t use the sugar in the blood, leading to extremely high blood sugar levels (called hyperglycemia). High blood sugar can lead to life-threatening complications if it’s not treated in time.

Without insulin, the body can’t use the sugar in the blood, leading to extremely high blood sugar levels.

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Type 1 Diabetes Is Not the Same as Type 2 Diabetes

It’s important to note that type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes have different causes. Autoantibodies typically aren’t involved in type 2 diabetes. Instead, people with type 2 diabetes have high blood sugar levels because their cells don’t know how to use insulin properly. This condition is known as insulin resistance, which can develop from excess weight and lack of exercise, among other factors. Age also plays a role, as type 2 diabetes tends to affect adults ages 35 and older (but it can affect children).

2. Type 1 Diabetes Is Usually Diagnosed in Children and Young Adults

Researchers don’t know the exact cause of type 1 diabetes, but it is more commonly diagnosed in certain groups of people.

Although it’s possible to develop type 1 diabetes at any age, type 1 diabetes is one of the most common chronic (long-term) diseases affecting children in the United States. In 2021, it was reported that about 304,000 people younger than 20 years old had type 1 diabetes in the U.S. Type 1 diabetes is most commonly diagnosed between the ages of 4 and 7 or 10 and 14.

Other risk factors for type 1 diabetes include:

  • A family history of type 1 diabetes — Having a parent or sibling with the condition can raise your risk.
  • Your genetics — Having certain genes can increase your risk of type 1 diabetes.
  • Where you live — Most people diagnosed with type 1 diabetes live farther from the equator.
  • Environmental triggers — Certain viruses may play a role in type 1 diabetes.

3. High Blood Sugar Causes the Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes

The symptoms of type 1 diabetes occur due to high blood sugar caused by a lack of insulin. Without insulin, the cells around your body can’t use the sugar in your blood for energy. This causes sugar to build up in your blood and produces several different symptoms.

In children, symptoms usually develop quickly — over a few hours or days. In adults, symptoms may develop over several days or weeks. Common symptoms of type 1 diabetes include:

  • Frequent urination (polyuria)
  • Feeling thirsty (polydipsia)
  • Increased appetite
  • Weight loss without trying
  • Fatigue
  • Dry mouth
  • Dry skin

Less common symptoms may include:

  • Blurry vision
  • Mood changes
  • Yeast infections
  • Cuts that heal slowly

Symptoms should improve once you begin treatment. If your type 1 diabetes isn’t well controlled, you may notice these symptoms come back or get worse.

Dangerous symptoms of type 1 diabetes can occur if the cells of your body are starved for energy due to a lack of insulin. When this occurs, your body may start to break down fat and produce toxic acids called ketones. This condition is called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). About 1 in 3 children are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes after developing DKA. Symptoms of DKA to look out for include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Fruity-smelling breath
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling weak
  • Confusion
  • Coma

4. Type 1 Diabetes Is Diagnosed With a Blood Test

Type 1 diabetes is diagnosed with a blood test to check blood sugar levels. Your doctor or your child’s pediatrician may order these blood tests if they suspect diabetes. Tests to check blood sugar levels include:

  • Glycated hemoglobin (A1c) test — An average blood sugar level over the past two to three months
  • Fasting blood sugar test — Blood sugar levels after fasting overnight to see how the body handles blood sugar without food’s influence
  • Random blood sugar test — Shows blood sugar levels at a random time, regardless of eating
  • Oral glucose tolerance test — Shows the effect of a sugary drink on blood sugar levels after fasting

To find the best treatment plan for you or your child, a doctor may order additional tests, such as:

  • C-peptide — Measures a protein called C-peptide in the blood to help determine if the pancreas is making insulin
  • Autoantibody tests — Check for the presence of antibodies targeting the pancreas

5. Type 1 Diabetes Is Treated With Insulin

The main treatment for type 1 diabetes is insulin therapy. There are several types of insulin that differ in how long they last:

  • Rapid-acting — Starts working in about 15 minutes and lasts for up to four hours
  • Short-acting — Starts working in about 30 minutes and lasts for up to six hours
  • Intermediate-acting — Starts working in two to four hours and lasts for up to 18 hours
  • Long-acting — Lowers blood sugar over about 24 hours
  • Ultra-long-acting — Lowers blood sugar over about 36 hours

There are also several different ways to deliver insulin, including:

  • Injections — Insulin given with a syringe or pen multiple times throughout the day
  • Insulin pump — A device that delivers insulin throughout the day and at specific times (before meals)
  • Artificial pancreas — A mostly automated device that delivers a specific amount of insulin based on blood glucose readings from a continuous glucose monitor
  • Inhaler — A device to deliver rapid-acting insulin through the lungs

You’ll work with your child’s pediatrician or your doctor to develop the best treatment plan for using the right type of insulin and delivery method. A diabetes educator can help teach you and your family members how to use the devices.

6. Type 1 Diabetes Can Lead to Health Complications

You may experience complications of diabetes that affect your health. Long-term complications happen slowly over time. Short-term complications of type 1 diabetes are emergencies that require immediate treatment.

Long-Term Complications

Over time, high blood sugar can increase the risk of other serious health problems. The risk of complications increases the longer you have type 1 diabetes. Potential long-term complications of type 1 diabetes include:

  • Heart disease (cardiovascular disease)
  • Eye problems
  • Kidney disease (nephropathy)
  • Nerve damage (neuropathy)
  • Foot problems
  • Pregnancy complications

Short-Term Complications

Life-threatening complications can occur if your blood sugar is too high or low. High blood sugar can cause diabetes symptoms or more serious conditions like DKA. Your blood sugar may be too high if:

  • You eat too much.
  • You eat the wrong types of food.
  • You don’t take enough insulin.
  • You’re sick.

Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) may result in seizures, loss of consciousness, or death. Your blood sugar may be too low if:

  • You skip a meal.
  • You don’t get enough carbohydrates in your meal.
  • You get more physical activity than planned.
  • You take too much insulin.

7. You Can Live a Full and Healthy Life With Type 1 Diabetes

Although there isn’t a cure for type 1 diabetes, it’s a very treatable disease. With proper treatment, your child can live a full and healthy life with type 1 diabetes. After you or your child receives a diagnosis, take time to learn more about diabetes. You can take classes with a diabetes educator to understand how to balance diet, insulin, and physical activity.

Although there isn’t a cure for type 1 diabetes, it’s a very treatable disease.

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You or your child will also have a diabetes care team made up of several specialists to manage type 1 diabetes. This team may include:

  • Primary care doctor or pediatrician
  • Endocrinologist (a doctor specializing in diabetes and other hormone disorders)
  • Dietitian
  • Diabetes educator
  • Pharmacist

As a parent or guardian of a child with type 1 diabetes, or as an adult living with type 1 diabetes, you can also join support groups like myT1Dteam to connect with others who share similar experiences.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On myT1Dteam, the social network for people living with type 1 diabetes and their loved ones, members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with those who understand life with type 1 diabetes.

Are you or a family member living with type 1 diabetes? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Posted on February 7, 2024
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June 15, 2024 by A myT1Dteam Member 8 answers
Sarika Chaudhari, M.D., Ph.D. completed her medical school and residency training in clinical physiology at Government Medical College, Nagpur, India. Learn more about her here.
Emily Wagner, M.S. holds a Master of Science in biomedical sciences with a focus in pharmacology. She is passionate about immunology, cancer biology, and molecular biology. Learn more about her here.

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