An Overview of Type 1 Diabetes

Doctor showing young patient how to use diabetes pen

Ron Levine / Getty Images

In This Article
Table of Contents

Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong autoimmune disease that affects how your body processes food and turns it into energy. When you eat, food is digested and broken down into a simple sugar called glucose. Glucose is necessary for every bodily function, including thinking. But when you have type 1 diabetes, your pancreas stops producing insulin, a hormone that allows your body's cells to take in glucose for energy. So, instead of using up the glucose from the food you eat and using it for energy, it continuously circulates in your blood.

Symptoms

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. Symptoms of the disease in children often looks like:

  • 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.

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.

Causes

Though anyone can get type 1, children and adolescents are most frequently diagnosed with this type of diabetes. It is estimated that about 15,000 children and teens in the United States are diagnosed with type 1 each year. Children from non-Hispanic white, African American 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.

Diagnosis

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 percent 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 65 (GADA) 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.

Treatment

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 may need to take insulin injections. Each person's timeline for insulin therapy varies. Treatment options also include oral medications for glucose control and pancreatic aid to support insulin production as much as possible. Work with your healthcare team including your primary care physician and an endocrinologist to create a custom treatment plan.

Coping

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.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.