An Overview of Type 1 Diabetes

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Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease characterized by high levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood. Glucose levels become elevated because the body mistakenly attacks healthy cells involved in the production of insulin, the hormone that controls the uptake of glucose by cells, which use it to fuel every function of the body, including mental function. For this reason, type 1 diabetes can lead to health complications ranging from vision loss to the amputation of extremities.

Insulin helps transport glucose from the bloodstream with the help of glucose transporters.


Because glucose can’t get into the cells of your body and instead builds up in your bloodstream, it throws your body into crisis. The most common symptoms associated with type 1 are:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Frequent need to urinate
  • Continual thirst despite taking fluids
  • Severe hunger urges
  • Unexplained weight loss

Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes in Children

Type 1 used to be referred to as juvenile diabetes as the disease often affects children and teens. Common symptoms in children are:

  • Frequent bed-wetting
  • Weight loss
  • Severe hunger
  • Frequent thirst
  • Fatigue or mood changes

It’s easy to understand these symptoms when you realize that the body is starving for glucose. Hunger, weight loss, and fatigue are symptoms of the body’s inability to use glucose for energy. Frequent urination and thirst occur because your body is doing all it can to get rid of the excess glucose by dumping it into the bladder.

Doctor showing young patient how to use diabetes pen
Ron Levine/Getty Images

Type 1 versus Type 2

The biggest difference between these two types of diabetes (there are more) is found in the production of insulin. In type 1, insulin production diminishes and may cease altogether. In type 2, the pancreas continues to make insulin, but it is not enough to keep the glucose in balance. It’s also possible that the pancreas is making adequate amounts of insulin, but the body uses it poorly (called insulin resistance), most often because the person is overweight. The vast majority of those who have been diagnosed with diabetes have type 2.


Though anyone can get type 1, children and adolescents are most frequently diagnosed with this type of diabetes. It is estimated that about 18,000 children and teens in the United States are diagnosed with type 1 each year. Children from White, Black, and Hispanic ethnic groups are at greater risk for type 1. Children from Native American and Asian/Pacific Islander ethnic groups are also at risk for type 1 but have a stronger risk for type 2.

Type 1 diabetes may develop in children or adults when the immune system turns on itself and destroys cells in the pancreas that are responsible for producing insulin. It is considered an autoimmune disease. Why this happens is still unclear to researchers, but the three most likely culprits appear to be:

  • Genes: A family history of diabetes is present for some
  • Viruses: Some evidence exists that certain viruses may trigger a response in the immune system that is similar to a search-and-destroy mission, shutting down insulin production in the pancreas
  • Environment: Some researchers suspect that environmental influences when combined with genetic factors, may raise the risk of type 1 diabetes

Though the exact cause(s) are not yet known, we know for certain that type 1 diabetes is not caused by eating foods with high sugar content.


There are three standard blood tests typically used to diagnose type 1 and type 2 diabetes. You may be diagnosed with type 1 diabetes if you meet one of the following criteria:

  • Fasting blood glucose test (FBG) greater than 126 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) on two separate tests
  • Random glucose test greater than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) with symptoms of diabetes
  • Hemoglobin A1C test greater than 6.5% on two separate tests

There are two other factors taken into consideration when diagnosing type 1 diabetes: the presence of specific antibodies such as the glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD) antibody and/or others; and a low-to-normal C-peptide count, which is a substance made in the pancreas alongside insulin that can show how much insulin your body makes.


The goal of treatment in type 1 diabetes is to prolong insulin production for as long as possible before production fully stops, which is usually inevitable. It is a lifelong disease, but there are numerous tools and medications to help with the management.

Initially, diet and lifestyle changes may help with blood sugar balance, but as insulin production slows, you will need to take insulin injections. Each person’s timeline for insulin therapy varies. Work with your healthcare team including your primary care physician and an endocrinologist to create a custom treatment plan.


Currently, there is no cure for diabetes. The closest thing to a cure for type 1 diabetes is a pancreas transplant. However, this is risky surgery to perform and those who receive transplants must take potent immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their lives to keep their bodies from rejecting the new organ. Aside from these risks, there is also a shortage of available donors to meet the demand.

Until a safer and more accessible cure is found, the goal is to manage your diabetes well. Clinical studies have shown that well-managed diabetes can delay or even prevent many of the health complications that can result. In fact, there are few things a person with type 1 diabetes can’t do if you take it seriously. Good management habits include:

A Word From Verywell

You may feel shocked, frustrated, and confused by a type 1 diabetes diagnosis affecting you, your child, or a loved one, but know that help is available. Seek out a support group online or in your area to connect with others going through the same emotions and challenges. And while new research is being conducted every day, there are numerous monitoring tools and medicines on the market today to help you manage your disease and continue to live a healthy, fulfilling life.

10 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.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is type 1 diabetes?

  2. American Diabetes Association. Diabetes symptoms.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Type 2 diabetes.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Incidence of newly diagnosed diabetes.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes risk factors.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes tests.

  7. American Diabetes Association. Learn the genetics of diabetes.

  8. American Diabetes Association. Insulin basics.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

  10. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Type 1 diabetes.

By Gary Gilles
Gary Gilles is a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) who has written about type 1 diabetes and served as a diabetes counselor. He began writing about diabetes after his son's diagnosis as an infant.