Almost everyone has heard of diabetes, but not everyone fully understands what being diagnosed with diabetes means. Diabetes is a serious health condition that has two main types, type 1 and type 2. While type 2 diabetes is often caused by insulin resistance and can usually be prevented, type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune response and cannot be prevented. There is currently no cure for type 1 diabetes, so people living with the condition are dependent on insulin injections to manage their blood sugar levels each and every day.
People of all ages can develop type 1 diabetes, but it mostly develops in children and teenagers. It has very little to do with lifestyle choices, like the stereotypes for the condition would make you think. With it occurring in those so young, it’s important to know the true causes of this condition and what to look out for — especially since a child may not know how to communicate what’s wrong.
Causes, Risks, and Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes
The main cause of type 1 diabetes is thought to be an autoimmune reaction where the body mistakenly destroys the insulin producing cells, called beta cells, found in the pancreas. As a result, blood sugar levels do not regulate on their own. Another cause of type 1 diabetes is found within genetics and environmental factors. Some people may inherit the genes that make them more likely to develop type 1 diabetes but may not be apparent unless triggered by some environmental factor such as a virus.
Although risk factors for type 1 diabetes are not as clear, it most often occurs in children but can occur at any age. Risk factors in children may include:
Family history: If you have a parent or sibling with type 1 diabetes, you may have an increased risk of developing the conditions as well.
Genetics: Specific genes passed down from a parent may indicate a higher risk for type 1 diabetes.
Race: In the United States, it is more common for white children to develop type 1 diabetes than any other races.
Certain Viruses: Being exposed to certain viruses may trigger the autoimmune reaction.
The side effects of type 1 diabetes can become serious very quickly, once the condition has developed it can be deadly, so noticing the signs of type 1 diabetes in your child before it gets too serious is crucial. Typically, symptoms of type 1 diabetes in children are roughly the same:
Increased thirst and urination
Unexplained weight loss
Numb or tingling hands or feet
Many times, it may take a few months or even years for symptoms to become apparent, which can be very dangerous. Since type 1 diabetes is most common in children, it is critical that parents or older siblings are aware of these symptoms as well, because most children may not understand what these symptoms mean or that they are even experiencing them. It is also important to understand these symptoms because most of these symptoms are very similar to those found with other heath conditions and may get mistaken as something else. If you believe that you or your child may have type 1 diabetes, schedule an appointment with your doctor to get their blood sugar tested.
Ignoring these symptoms may result in very serious, even fatal, health problems in the future. A few of these health problems may include heart and blood vessel disease, nerve damage, kidney damage, eye damage, or osteoporosis.
A common complication from diabetes is a condition called hypoglycemia, low blood sugar. This occurs when there is too much insulin, waiting too long for a meal, not eating enough, or getting too much physical activity. If you notice your child has any of this happening or any symptoms of low blood sugar, talk to your doctor about what changes may need to be made.
Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) is also a common complication of diabetes. DKA results when there is not enough insulin to let blood sugar into your cells which could be life-threatening. Illness and missed insulin shots are the most common causes of this complication. Again, talk to your doctor to ensure you understand how to prevent and treat DKA.
Managing Your Child's Type 1 Diabetes
Although there is no cure for type 1 diabetes, there are many ways that you can help your child manage their condition. Children that have type 1 diabetes will need to have their insulin administered daily for their blood sugar levels to be regulated. This could be from a syringe, pump, or insulin pen.
There are times where blood sugar levels in some children will not reach a healthy level with insulin alone. Your doctor may prescribe diabetes medications to take alongside the insulin and will usually suggest regularly checking blood sugar levels. They may also suggest following healthy lifestyle habits. This is where you as a parent can help! Some great healthy lifestyle habits that are important to managing your child’s type 1 diabetes can include:
Being physically active
Keeping blood pressure within healthy range
Controlling cholesterol levels
Another great way to help manage your child’s type 1 diabetes is to learn everything you can about the condition. Understanding what diabetes is and what it can cause if untreated is a main factor in helping your child. A few things that are important to know is what type of insulin your child should take and in what dosage, what device should be used, how to check blood sugar levels, where to go for support, and much more.
It is important to also understand that there will be big changes in your day-to-day lives after your child is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Adapting a new daily schedule will be important to ensure they are receiving regularly scheduled insulin injections and proper diet.
Staying connected and keeping open communication with your child about their condition is very beneficial for them and you. Type 1 diabetes can be scary for a child, so reassuring them that you will be there for them with any questions is very important. No child should have to try to manage this condition on their own. Make it clear to them that choices they make now managing their condition will help them in the future! It is also a good idea to let them know of any outside resources that they should be aware of such as support groups, summer camps, or even online community forums. Your child’s mental health may be affected from this condition and getting them the support they need is important.
Being there for your child, understanding what they are dealing with, and helping them when needed are the best ways to manage your child’s health. It may also be beneficial to you, your child, and your community to raise awareness of the condition. There are many online forums, day specific holidays such as World Diabetes Day (November 14), and local community groups that are great ways to raise awareness and get extra support!