What Is Type 1 Diabetes?

Every year more than 1.9 million children and adults are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D). It is not to be confused with type 2 diabetes which can also affect both children and adults. T1D is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks itself, specifically the insulin producing islet cells in the pancreas. The person’s pancreas stops producing insulin, a hormone that enables people to get energy from food. T1D cannot be prevented or cured and it is NOT caused by eating too much sugar.

Researchers studying the causes of T1D now believe that there is a genetic component and an environmental trigger such as a virus attacking the body. While diet and exercise play a key role in managing both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, people with T1D are completely dependent upon insulin delivered via a syringe or pump to survive. The body breaks down carbohydrates from food into a simple sugar, glucose. Insulin allows the body to use glucose and produce energy. Insulin acts as the key that allows glucose to enter the body’s cells where it is converted into energy for the body. If there is little or no insulin, glucose builds up in the blood stream, causing high blood sugar. Prolonged high blood sugar can cause organ failure, tissue damage, and the loss of limbs. On the other hand too much insulin can lead to low blood sugar causing seizures, coma and death within minutes. People with T1D must carry a blood sugar meter at all times and must have access to a source of fast acting sugar like juice or candy.

Before diagnosis people with T1D may experience rapid weight loss, insatiable thirst, excessive urination, difficulty breathing and a fruity or acetone smell on the breath. If T1D is untreated it will lead to diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), a condition in which the blood becomes acidic and which can be fatal within hours.

Symptoms can appear suddenly at any age and are often mistaken for flu, strep, and/or urinary tract infections. Symptoms may include:

  • Increased thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Weight loss (or in children failure to gain)
  • Extreme hunger
  • Fatigue, lethargy
  • Irritability or mood swings
  • Blurry vision
  • Yeast infection
  • Odd smelling breath or urine (sweet, fruity, or like acetone)
  • Heavy or labored breathing
  • Nausea or vomiting

If you recognize these symptoms in yourself or your child, check with your doctor. An in-office test for sugar in the urine is used as a first diagnostic tool. If the urine is positive for sugar, a simple finger prick is done to test a drop of blood and confirm the diagnosis.