Understanding the Effects of Type 1 Diabetes

child putting insulin in finger

When most people hear the word diabetes, they think of a condition adults can get due to poor lifestyle and eating choices. Specifically, this is known as Type 2 diabetes. Another lesser-known type of diabetes that has a very different cause is Type 1. It usually appears during childhood or adolescence, but can sometimes be diagnosed in adults as well.

“The major difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes comes down to the way the body handles insulin,” explains Dr. Michael Lasser, a pediatrician at NewYork-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital in Cortlandt Manor. “Both types are chronic autoimmune disorders that affect the way the body regulates blood sugar (glucose), the fuel that feeds the body’s cells. Insulin, which is produced in the pancreas, allows the glucose to penetrate the cells. People with Type 2 diabetes either don’t make enough insulin or the insulin they do produce is not effective enough. But those with Type 1 diabetes cannot produce insulin at all.”

The result is that both types can lead to chronically high blood sugar levels that can increase the threat of life-threatening complications such as heart disease and stroke.

The exact cause of Type 1 diabetes is unknown; it develops when the body's immune system, which normally fights harmful bacteria and viruses, mistakenly destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Researchers have been investigating the reasons behind this, but to date, there are no definitive results. Certain risk factors can predispose a person for developing the condition including family history, genetics, and age.

“Although Type 1 diabetes can appear at any age, it usually appears at two noticeable peaks. The first peak occurs in children between 4 and 7 years of age, and the second in children between 10 and 14,” Dr. Lasser says.

Signs to watch for in your child

“Although many of the symptoms of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are similar, they present in very different ways,” Dr. Lasser notes. While symptoms of Type 2 diabetes often develop slowly over the course of years, symptoms of Type 1 diabetes develop quickly, typically over the course of several weeks, and include:

  • Increased thirst
  • Drowsiness or lethargy
  • Frequent urination
  • Bed-wetting in children who previously didn't wet the bed during the night
  • Increased appetite
  • Heavy or labored breathing
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Irritability and other mood changes
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Blurred vision
  • Irritability and mood changes

Type 1 diabetes is a 24/7 disease that requires constant management. People with the condition must continuously and carefully balance insulin intake with eating, exercise, and other activities. They must also measure blood-sugar levels through finger pricks, ideally at least six times a day, or by wearing a continuous glucose monitor. If the patient is a child, parents must ensure that these measures are carried out consistently. The good news is that careful control of glucose levels over a person’s lifetime can minimize diabetic complications.

To learn more about Type 1 diabetes, visit nyp.org/pediatrics or call 800-245-KIDS to find a pediatric specialist.