Understanding type 1 diabetes
The cause of type 1 (T1D) diabetes is still a medical mystery with no cure (yet).1 What is known is that it’s an autoimmune disease unrelated to eating too much sugar or not exercising.2 It’s not caused by anything a person did or didn’t do. Anyone, at any age, can develop T1D, although it’s most often diagnosed in children, teens and young adults2 (in the past it was referred to as juvenile diabetes). While a diagnosis may feel overwhelming, type 1 diabetes doesn’t define who a person is. It’s just one aspect of daily life that can be successfully managed.
Frequently asked questions about type 1 diabetes
Insulin is a hormone that helps our cells turn blood sugar into energy.3 Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body mistakenly destroys insulin in the pancreas, so the insulin/food balance may be thrown off.
The signs and symptoms of type 1 diabetes may come on quickly. For some, it’s feeling extra thirsty, extra hungry (but actually losing weight) or extremely tired. For others, warning signs may include a child who is frequently asking for milk or water, going to the bathroom way more than usual or — after successfully potty-training — suddenly wetting the bed or having accidents. 4, 5
Signs and symptoms of type 1 diabetes may include:6
Loss of appetite
Unintended weight loss
Fruity-smelling breath (or breath that smells like nail polish remover)
Numbness or tingling in the hands and feet
Some symptoms can mimic the flu. If you have any concerns, ask your doctor for a type 1 diabetes blood test.
Your body needs blood sugar, also called glucose, for energy. Instead of using this energy all at once, insulin — a hormone — stores that energy until it’s needed. When insulin isn’t working properly, it may lead to excess glucose in the blood.7
With type 1 diabetes, the body may attack and destroy the cells that make insulin. Because of this, it’s an autoimmune condition that may have nothing to do with diet or lifestyle choices.8
With type 2 diabetes, people become insulin resistant — their bodies make insulin, but are unable to use it properly. You are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes through a diet high in fat, calories and cholesterol and an inactive lifestyle.9 Unlike type 1 diabetes, it is possible to delay or prevent type 2 diabetes.10
Prediabetes is when you are borderline diabetic. When you have prediabetes, your blood glucose levels are elevated, just not yet elevated to type 2 diabetic levels.11
The cause of type 1 diabetes isn’t known, but some researchers think an inherited gene might trigger a virus.10 You or your child may be at a higher risk if:
- You have a family history. Certain genes increase the odds of developing type 1 diabetes.10
- You live in certain environments. Studies show there may be a link between cold climates and type 1 diabetes.12
- You may have had exposure to other viruses. Some researchers are studying a connection between enteroviruses that cause mild illnesses (like the common cold) and the role these viruses may play in damaging the pancreas and triggering type 1 diabetes.13 More research needs to be done, but the studies are promising.14
With type 1 diabetes, the body isn’t able to make insulin on its own. Because of this, you’ll have to find an insulin routine that works — either injecting insulin through insulin shots, pumps or syringes.15 (A pill wouldn’t work because the stomach acid would destroy the insulin before it could do what it needs to do.) The best results occur when insulin is injected in the same general area when food starts to enter your blood.15 To ensure your child is as healthy as possible, you’ll have to think about what they eat and keep track of carb counts. The good news is that technology has come a long way in helping people manage type 1 diabetes, including phone apps that alert people when blood sugar levels are changing.
When blood sugar levels are properly managed, nutrition is front and center, you lead an active lifestyle and take any necessary medications, you have a good chance of stopping or delaying complications such as:16
- Eye disease
- Kidney damage
- Nerve damage
- Tooth and gum issues
- Heart disease
Diabetic ketoacidosis, or DKA, is a serious condition that can happen to some people with diabetes. It occurs when a lack of insulin forces your body to use fat as energy.17 When this happens, acidic chemicals known as ketones can build up and poison the blood. If not treated, DKA could lead to diabetic coma or death.18
Early warning signs of DKA
Signs and symptoms of DKA can develop within 24 hours. Watch for:19
Blood glucose levels above 240 mg/dL
Breath that smells like fruit or nail polish remover
Medical professionals recommend knowing the warning signs and symptoms of DKA and having ketone testing supplies at home to check for ketones.20
The importance of healthy lifestyle changes
With treatment options and research studies evolving all the time, the future of those living with type 1 diabetes may look brighter. Successful management may include:21
- Being vigilant about managing your blood sugar
- Taking insulin and other medications as directed
- Controlling your blood pressure and cholesterol
- Exercising regularly
- Making healthy food choices
- Getting adequate sleep (sleep deprivation can increase blood sugar levels)
- Keeping stress levels in check
- Finding strength in shared experiences. You are not alone. Join a support group or community forum, like the American Diabetes Association community forum or the Juvenile Diabetes type one nation
Through careful planning and healthy choices, a type 1 diagnosis may not have to slow you or your child down.
More diabetes resources for you
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with prediabetes, type 1 or type 2 diabetes, you can download our Diabetes Toolkit to help you learn more about your condition.
- Children's Diabetes Foundation www.childrensdiabetesfoundation.org, 2020.
- Type 1 Diabetes www.cdc.gov, 2020
- Insulin- Diabetes www.diabetes.co.uk, 2019.
- Diabetes Symptoms: Early Warning Symptoms and Signs www.jdrf.org, 2021.
- Signs of Diabetes in Toddlers, Babies & Infants www.jdrf.org, 2021.
- Type 1 diabetes- symptoms and causes www.mayoclinic.org, 2020.
- Insulin www.yourhormones.info, 2018.
- Type 1 Diabetes: What is it? kidshealth.org, 2018.
- Poor Nutrition www.cdc.gov, 2021.
- Genetics of Diabetes diabetes.org, 2021.
- The Surprising Truth About Prediabetes www.cdc.gov, 2020.
- Environmental Triggers of Type 1 Diabetes www.ncbi.gov, 2012.
- Viral Triggers for Type 1 Diabetes www.ncbi.gov, 2008.
- UF Health researchers on team studying possible viral link with Type 1 diabetes ufhealth.org, 2020.
- Insulin Routines www.diabetes.org, 2021.
- Prevent Complications www.cdc.gov, 2019.
- Diabetic Ketoacidosis www.jdrf.org, 2021.
- DKA (Ketoacidosis & Ketones) www.diabetes.org, 2021.
- Diabetic Ketoacidosis www.mayoclinic.org, 2020.
- Five Things to Know About Ketones www.diabetes.org, 2021.
- Type 1 Diabetes www.mayoclinic.org, 2020.