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Type 1 Diabetes and Your Child

  • Irene Moosen
  • Posted March 11, 2013

Children with diabetes usually have what is called type 1 diabetes, one form of the disease known as diabetes mellitus. It's an autoimmune disease, which means the body's own immune system, designed to attack infectious agents invading from outside, instead attacks cells that perform a healthy, normal body function.

In type 1 diabetes, essential cells of the pancreas are destroyed. Normally, these "beta" cells produce insulin, a hormone essential to life. After the food we eat releases sugar into the blood stream, insulin helps move it into our cells for energy. Without insulin, the sugar (glucose) cannot be used, and it builds up in the blood stream. When no insulin is available, your body starves -- even though you may have plenty of sugar in your bloodstream. In an attempt to get energy, the body breaks down fat, leaving behind a toxic byproduct, ketones, which can lead to a serious, life-threatening condition called ketoacidosis.

Type 1 diabetes is also referred to as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes. Children with type 1 diabetes must get insulin shots because their pancreas can't produce any insulin.

What causes type 1 diabetes?

The exact cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown. Children who have it may have inherited a genetic condition (why the disease develops at a particular time, whether it be in infancy, childhood, puberty, or adulthood, however, is still a mystery). It generally appears when they are very young or in their teen-age years. It seems to run in the family, so if both parents are diabetic, there's a higher risk their children will also develop the disease.

When can you get diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes usually appears before age 30, but it's possible for it to show up at any age, including infancy, and it may occur abruptly. (Type 1 diabetes is often diagnosed after a child blacks out for unknown reasons; however, people have often suspected something was wrong for a period of time before that.) Your child may also suffer from another type of the disease known as type 2 diabetes , a condition in which the body is unable to use insulin properly.

What are the symptoms?

Perhaps the most important symptoms of type 1 diabetes in children are a need to use the bathroom a lot and constant thirst. If your child has these symptoms, take him to his physician for a checkup.

These are some of the common symptoms of type 1 diabetes:

  • Problems with urination, including increased frequency and bed-wetting
  • Constant thirst
  • Agitation or excessive irritability
  • Increased appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Frequent infections
  • Fatigue
  • Sores that are slow to heal
  • Dry, itchy skin

Is there a cure for type 1 diabetes?

Unfortunately, there's not yet a cure. Diabetes is a chronic, lifelong disease requiring both intensive self-care and medical care. Without proper care, the disease can cause both acute problems -- which can be immediately dangerous and even life-threatening -- and chronic problems that can affect your child's quality of life and progress to long-term complications. The good news is that diabetes is controllable, and current treatment methods have an excellent success record. By taking insulin, watching blood sugar levels, and getting regular exercise, children with type 1 diabetes can lead healthy and active lives.

What are the most serious long-term complications?

Without proper management, type 1 diabetes can cause eye disease and blindness. It can also damage nerves, kidneys, and the large and small blood vessels, which can lead to other health problems such as stroke and heart disease. Untreated, it can lead to arteriosclerosis, leg sores, hypertension, edema, chronic infections, and death.

What is the treatment for type 1 diabetes?

Treatment for diabetes is tailored to the individual child and should be planned in consultation with a doctor and other health professionals. Children with diabetes can expect to grow up normally. Because type 1 diabetes means your child's body produces little or no insulin, however, its treatment generally requires a strict regimen, including a well-planned diet, physical activity, blood sugar testing several times a day, and insulin. (Self-monitoring for blood glucose involves pricking the finger or arm for a drop of blood that is placed on a strip and read by a small, portable meter.)

Although the treatment for type 1 diabetes always includes insulin, this hormone can be administered either by injection (usually in multiple injections throughout the day) or through a device placed under the skin with an externally worn insulin pump, which delivers exact amounts of insulin throughout the day and night.

If you have a small child, you will probably have to monitor and test him or her until your child is old enough to do it independently. At any given moment, your child's blood sugar level may be too high, which requires an insulin shot or increased physical activity, or too low, requiring glucose from food or drink, or from candy or glucose tablets, or perhaps an injection of the hormone glucagon for severe lows. This means you'll need to ask your doctor or diabetes educator about the physical and behavioral cues that indicate a change in blood sugar levels among infants and young children, who can't talk about the symptoms they're experiencing.

As your child gets older, some of these necessities can be hard to adjust to. Teenagers, in particular, may become impatient with caring for their disease, so managing diabetes can be a tough balancing act. Parents need to work with their children to keep diabetes under control, and this requires both education and practice.

Working closely with both doctors and diabetes educators will help you manage the disease by creating a successful partnership with your child.

With the help of an adult, older children can learn how to manage their own condition. Children with diabetes do not generally need special medical attention. Most schools allow children to get their blood sugar tests and insulin shots at school.

However, a student who needs to be on a regimen of blood testing, insulin injections, and a special eating schedule to control diabetes may raise issues for some schools. It's important to meet with teachers and other school staff to discuss your child's needs. Many health organizations, such as Children with Diabetes, offer excellent resources to parents and teachers on caring for children with diabetes at school.

Further Resources

Children with Diabetes

The American Diabetes Association

The National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NIDC), part of the National Institutes of Health

Diabetes Care and Education Dietetic Practice Group, a division of the American Dietetic Association


Type 1 Diabetes.

Type 1 Diabetes. American Diabetes Association.

Type 1 Diabetes Fact Sheet. Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International.

American Diabetes Association. Alternative Insulin Delivery Systems.

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