Gestational Diabetes vs. Diabetes: What Are the Differences?

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Gestational diabetes and diabetes are conditions in which the body can't use insulin effectively. This allows sugar to build up in the bloodstream.

One key difference is that gestational diabetes develops during pregnancy. Most of the time, blood sugar levels return to normal after delivery.

Learn more about the differences between gestational diabetes and diabetes.

A person talking to their healthcare provider.

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Symptoms

Gestational diabetes and diabetes share some common symptoms. However, you may not have symptoms of gestational diabetes unless your blood sugar is very high. Also, symptoms such as frequent urination and nausea can overlap with symptoms of pregnancy.

Gestational Diabetes
  • Usually has no symptoms

  • Excessive thirst

  • Frequent urination

  • Hungrier than usual

  • Blurred vision

  • Nausea and vomiting

Diabetes
  • Excessive thirst

  • Frequent urination

  • Hungrier than usual

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Blurred vision

  • Numbness and tingling

  • Fatigue

  • Very dry skin

  • Nausea and vomiting


Causes

Your body converts food into glucose (sugar) for energy. When sugar enters your bloodstream, it tells your pancreas to release insulin, which helps distribute the sugar to cells throughout your body.

Diabetes means the body can't make enough insulin or can't use it effectively. However, the underlying causes of these conditions are different.

Gestational Diabetes

The exact cause of gestational diabetes is not clear. Because of hormonal changes and weight gain during pregnancy, your body may not be able to use insulin as well as before pregnancy. This can lead to insulin resistance when your needs are greater. Gestational diabetes happens when the body can't make enough insulin to keep up.

Any pregnant person can develop gestational diabetes. Factors that may increase risk include:

  • Overweight and obesity
  • Family history of diabetes
  • Previously gave birth to a baby that weighed more than 9 pounds
  • Insulin resistance or prediabetes before getting pregnant

Women older than 25 may have a higher risk than younger women. There may also be more risk to African American, American Indian, Asian American, Hispanic or Latino, or Pacific Islander people.

Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys beta cells in the pancreas. This means the pancreas can no longer produce insulin. What gets this process started is not clear.

Type 2 diabetes happens when the body can't make enough insulin or can't use insulin effectively. A host of environmental and lifestyle factors may play a role in type 2 diabetes, including:

Diagnosis

Your healthcare provider can diagnose diabetes by testing your blood sugar levels.

Gestational Diabetes

Screening is recommended at or after 24 weeks of pregnancy. If your blood sugar is higher earlier, it could be a sign of type 1 or type 2 diabetes rather than gestational diabetes. Gestational diabetes testing may include:

  • Glucose screening test: You don’t have to fast for this test, also called a glucose challenge test. You’ll start by drinking a liquid that contains glucose. After an hour, a healthcare provider will draw blood. If your blood sugar is 140 or higher, the next step may be an oral glucose tolerance test, which does require fasting.
  • Glucose tolerance test: You’ll fast for at least eight hours. Then, a healthcare provider will draw blood from your arm. Next, you’ll drink a liquid that contains glucose, with additional blood draws every hour for two to three hours.

If your blood glucose levels are higher than normal at least two times, you have gestational diabetes.

Diabetes

Your healthcare provider may order blood testing for an annual wellness exam or if you have diabetes symptoms. Testing may include:

  • Fasting plasma glucose (FPG): You have your blood drawn after an eight-hour fast.
  • A1C test: This blood test finds your average blood glucose levels for the past three months. It's not necessary to fast.
  • Random blood sugar test: You can take this test any time without fasting.

These blood tests can confirm that you have diabetes. If it's not clear whether you have type 1 or type 2, you'll need another blood test to look for antibodies associated with type 1 diabetes.

Treatment

Treatment depends on the type of diabetes you have, which is why it's important to get the proper diagnosis. Your healthcare provider will determine whether it's gestational diabetes or pre-existing but undiagnosed diabetes.

Whichever type you have, blood glucose monitoring is crucial. You'll check your blood sugar several times a day to see if it's too high or too low.

Another important part of diabetes management is diet. Your healthcare provider will offer general guidelines that may include:

  • Space meals and snacks evenly throughout the day without skipping
  • Avoid sugary foods and drinks
  • Limit saturated fats
  • Choose whole grains over refined ones when possible
  • Eat plenty of non-starchy vegetables

There are some differences in treatment for gestational diabetes vs. diabetes.

Gestational Diabetes

Your healthcare provider will monitor your and your baby's health throughout pregnancy and delivery.

Tweaks to diet and exercise may be enough to keep it under control. But about 15% of people with gestational diabetes will need to take insulin. Depending on your blood sugar levels, you may need to do this several times a day. It's safe to take insulin during pregnancy.

Moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking for 150 minutes per week, may help. Discuss with your healthcare provider before changing or adding to your exercise routine to ensure it's safe for you and your baby.

Diabetes

You may be able to manage type 2 diabetes with diet, exercise, and weight control. If that doesn't work, treatment may include medicines to help lower your blood sugar. Some people with type 2 diabetes need to take insulin.

If you have type 1 diabetes, your pancreas isn't making insulin. Treatment will include taking insulin several times a day for the rest of your life.

Prevention

There are a few steps you can take to help reduce the risk of gestational diabetes and type 2 diabetes, including:

  • Weight control: If you're overweight, try to lose at least 10% to 15% of your current weight. If you're already pregnant, speak with your healthcare provider first.
  • Diet: Follow a healthy diet plan and reduce calories, fats, and sugars. Aim for regular meals and smaller portions.
  • Move more: Strive for a minimum of 30 minutes of activity five days a week.
  • Quit smoking: It's hard to quit, but it can improve your overall health. Ask your healthcare provider about smoking cessation programs.
  • Visit your healthcare team: Try to have annual exams to assess your overall health.

If you had gestational diabetes, you'll need to get tested again six to 12 weeks after your baby is born and again every one to three years. Gestational diabetes usually goes away after the baby is born. However, half of the people with gestational diabetes eventually develop type 2 diabetes.

Summary 

Gestational diabetes and diabetes have to do with the way the body produces and uses insulin. Insulin helps move glucose to cells throughout the body to use for energy. Symptoms are similar, but different types of diabetes have different causes and treatments. Most of the time, gestational diabetes goes away after you give birth. However, it leaves you at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later.

A Word From Verywell

Even in the best of circumstances, a lot of change goes along with pregnancy. Learning you have gestational diabetes can feel a bit overwhelming. It's important to remember that it can be managed through lifestyle adjustments and, when necessary, medication. Your healthcare team can recommend diet and exercise modifications to benefit you and your baby.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes gestational diabetes?

    Hormonal and weight changes can alter how your body uses insulin, leading to insulin resistance. Sometimes, the body can't keep up with the increased need for insulin. This might be more likely if you had insulin resistance before getting pregnant.

  • How does gestational diabetes affect the baby?

    Gestational diabetes can raise the risk of having a baby weighing 9 pounds or more. That can increase the chances of difficult delivery and cesarean (C-section) birth. Other risks to the baby include premature birth, low blood sugar, and developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

  • Does gestational diabetes lead to the development of type 2 diabetes after birth?

    Not always. About 50% of people who have gestational diabetes later develop type 2 diabetes. That's why it's important to screen for diabetes regularly. You can help lower your risk by maintaining a healthy diet, regular exercise, and weight management.

15 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Ann Pietrangelo
Ann Pietrangelo is a freelance writer, health reporter, and author of two books about her personal health experiences.