When Stacey Crescitelli’s teenage son, Henry, began growing quickly, losing weight and sleeping more, she and her husband, Joe, assumed that he was just, well, being a 14-year-old boy. It wasn’t until three months later that the Pennsylvania parents realized the true cause of Henry’s symptoms — he was suffering from Type 1 diabetes.
Beginning in December, Henry started going through what seemed to be a serious growth spurt. He grew four or five inches, and he lost weight along the way. “His body was changing,” Stacey told TODAY. “He has always been kind of a solid boy with a large frame — never one of those reed-thin, gangly boys — but suddenly, he was becoming one, and of course, we thought he was simply ‘leaning out.'”
By March, however, Henry was exhibiting symptoms that were far from normal: One day, the teen even suffered from a terrible bout of vertigo that left him unable to walk or focus his eyes. The vertigo continued for about 24 hours, but more symptoms followed, including frequent headaches, stomachaches, leg pains and dizziness. And the weight loss continued as well — Henry ultimately lost about 25 pounds.
After ruling out depression as a potential cause for Henry’s strange symptoms the Crescitellis called in their nurse practitioner. It was then that their son was diagnosed was Type 1 diabetes and the family was told he had been suffering from diabetic ketoacidosis (a condition in which a diabetic person’s body produces too much of a chemical called “ketone” that makes their blood dangerously acidic). Henry had to be hospitalized for four days until his condition was stabilized.
Now that Henry is healthily managing his diabetes, Stacey wants to warn other parents about what the disease’s symptoms look like in children in his age. Because even though Type 1 diabetes affects approximately 208,000 Americans under the age of 20, it isn’t always easy to detect in teens, pediatric emergency medicine physician Dr. Nirali Patel told TODAY. Symptoms like Henry’s (weight loss, increased fatigue, abdominal pain and blurry vision) are common, but so are things like increased thirst and hunger, increased urination and signs of dehydration.
“Recognition is especially difficult given that most parents would find somewhat typical for today’s teen,” Dr. Patel told TODAY. “However, it is the appearance of multiple symptoms — symptoms that are out of proportion relative to the teen’s baseline behavior or the emergence of new behaviors — that should alert parents that there may be an underlying medical issue.” For example, a teen with a large appetite might still be losing weight while also looking pale and unwell, Dr. Patel said.
“I most certainly never thought about diabetes for one minute,” Stacey ultimately told TODAY. “Know these basic symptoms and look for patterns over time.”
Heather Finn Content Strategy Editor Heather Finn is the content strategy editor at Good Housekeeping, where she heads up the brand’s social media strategy and covers entertainment news on everything from ABC’s ‘The Good Doctor’ to Netflix’s latest true crime documentaries.
- Type 1 Diabetes: What Is It?
- Diabetes in Children and Teens
- Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus in Children
- What is type 1 diabetes in children?
- What causes type 1 diabetes in a child?
- Which children are at risk for type 1 diabetes?
- What are the symptoms of type 1 diabetes in a child?
- How is type 1 diabetes diagnosed in a child?
- How is type 1 diabetes treated in a child?
- What are the possible complications of type 1 diabetes in a child?
- How can I help my child live with type 1 diabetes?
- When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?
- Key points about type 1 diabetes in children
- Next steps
Type 1 Diabetes: What Is It?
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What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease that affects how the body uses glucose (pronounced: GLOO-kose), a sugar that is the body’s main source of fuel. Your body needs glucose to keep running. Here’s how it should work.
- You eat.
- Glucose from the food enters your bloodstream.
- Your pancreas makes a hormone called insulin (pronounced: IN-suh-lin).
- Insulin helps the glucose get into the body’s cells.
- Your body gets the energy it needs.
The pancreas is a long, flat gland in your belly that helps your body digest food. It also makes insulin. Insulin is kind of like a key that opens the doors to the cells of the body. It lets the glucose in. Then the glucose can move out of the blood and into the cells.
But in diabetes, either the body can’t make insulin or the insulin doesn’t work in the body like it should. The glucose can’t get into the cells normally, so the blood sugar level gets too high. Lots of sugar in the blood makes people sick if they don’t get treatment.
What Is Type 1 Diabetes?
There are two major types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. Each type causes high blood sugar levels in a different way.
In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas can’t make insulin. That’s because the body’s immune system attacked the pancreas and destroyed the cells that make insulin.
When a person has type 1 diabetes, the body still can get glucose from food, but the lack of insulin means that glucose can’t get into the cells where it’s needed. So the glucose stays in the blood. This makes the blood sugar level very high and causes health problems.
Once a person has type 1 diabetes, the pancreas can’t ever make insulin again. To fix this problem, someone who has type 1 diabetes needs to take insulin through regular shots or an insulin pump.
Type 2 diabetes is different from type 1 diabetes. In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas still makes insulin. But the insulin doesn’t work in the body like it should and blood sugar levels get too high.
What Causes Type 1 Diabetes?
No one knows for sure what causes type 1 diabetes, but scientists think it has something to do with genes. Genes are like instructions for how the body should look and work that are passed on by parents to their kids.
But just getting the genes for diabetes isn’t usually enough. In most cases, something else has to happen — like getting a viral infection — for a person to develop type 1 diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes can’t be prevented. Doctors can’t even tell who will get it and who won’t.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes?
People can have diabetes without knowing it because the symptoms aren’t always obvious and they can take a long time to develop. Type 1 diabetes may come on gradually or suddenly.
When a person first has type 1 diabetes, he or she may:
- pee a lot because the body tries to get rid of the extra blood sugar by passing it out of the body in the urine
- drink a lot to make up for all that peeing
- eat a lot because the body is hungry for the energy it can’t get from sugar
- lose weight because the body starts to use fat and muscle for fuel
- feel tired all the time
Also, girls who have developed diabetes are more likely to get vaginal yeast infections before they’re diagnosed and treated.
If these early symptoms of diabetes aren’t recognized and treatment isn’t started, chemicals can build up in the blood and cause stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, breathing problems, and even loss of consciousness. Doctors call this diabetic ketoacidosis, or DKA.
There’s good news, though — getting treatment can control or stop these diabetes symptoms from happening and reduce the risk of long-term problems.
How Is Type 1 Diabetes Diagnosed?
Doctors can say for sure if a person has diabetes by testing blood samples for glucose. If the doctor suspects that a kid or teen has diabetes, he or she may send the person to see a pediatric endocrinologist — a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating children and teens living with diseases of the endocrine system, such as diabetes and growth problems.
How Is Type 1 Diabetes Treated?
People with type 1 diabetes have to pay a little more attention to what they’re eating and doing than people who don’t have diabetes.
They need to:
- check blood sugar levels as prescribed
- give themselves insulin injections or use an insulin pump as prescribed
- eat a healthy, balanced diet with accurate carbohydrate counts
- get regular exercise
- have regular checkups with doctors and other people on their diabetes health care team so they can stay healthy and get treatment for any diabetes problems
What’s it Like for Teens With Type 1 Diabetes?
Sometimes people who have diabetes feel different from their friends because they need to take insulin, think about how they eat, and control their blood sugar levels every day.
Some teens with diabetes want to deny that they even have it. They might hope that if they ignore diabetes, it will just go away. They may feel angry, depressed, helpless, or that their parents are constantly worrying about their diabetes management.
If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, it’s normal to feel like your world has been turned upside down. Your doctor or diabetes health care team is there to provide answers and support. Don’t hesitate to ask your doctors, dietitian, and other treatment professionals for advice and tips. It also can help to find support groups where you can talk about your feelings and find out how other teens cope.
Diabetes brings challenges, but teens who have it play sports, travel, date, go to school, and work just like their friends.
Reviewed by: Shara R. Bialo, MD Date reviewed: August 2018
Diabetes in Children and Teens
Until recently, the common type of diabetes in children and teens was type 1. It was called juvenile diabetes. With Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas does not make insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps glucose,or sugar, get into your cells to give them energy. Without insulin, too much sugar stays in the blood.
Now younger people are also getting type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes used to be called adult-onset diabetes. But now it is becoming more common in children and teens, due to more obesity. With Type 2 diabetes, the body does not make or use insulin well.
Children have a higher risk of type 2 diabetes if they are overweight or have obesity, have a family history of diabetes, or are not active. Children who are African American, Hispanic, Native American/Alaska Native, Asian American, or Pacific Islander also have a higher risk. To lower the risk of type 2 diabetes in children
- Have them maintain a healthy weight
- Be sure they are physically active
- Have them eat smaller portions of healthy foods
- Limit time with the TV, computer, and video
Children and teens with type 1 diabetes may need to take insulin. Type 2 diabetes may be controlled with diet and exercise. If not, patients will need to take oral diabetes medicines or insulin. A blood test called the A1C can check on how you are managing your diabetes.
Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus in Children
What is type 1 diabetes in children?
Diabetes is a condition in which the body can’t make enough insulin, or can’t use insulin normally. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder. The body’s immune system damages the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. Insulin is a hormone. It helps sugar (glucose) in the blood get into cells of the body to be used as fuel. When glucose can’t enter the cells, it builds up in the blood. This is called high blood sugar (hyperglycemia). High blood sugar can cause problems all over the body. It can damage blood vessels and nerves. It can harm the eyes, kidneys, and heart. It can also cause symptoms such as tiredness.
Type 1 diabetes mellitus is a long-term (chronic) condition. It may start at any age. Insulin from the pancreas must be replaced with insulin injections or an insulin pump.
There are two forms of type 1 diabetes:
- Immune-mediated diabetes. This is an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system damages the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. This is the most common kind of type 1 diabetes.
- Idiopathic type 1. This refers to rare forms of the disease with no known cause.
What causes type 1 diabetes in a child?
The cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown. Researchers think some people inherit a gene than can cause type 1 diabetes if a trigger such as a virus occurs.
Which children are at risk for type 1 diabetes?
A child is more at risk for type 1 diabetes if he or she has any of these risk factors:
- A family member with the condition
- Caucasian race
- Being from Finland or Sardinia
- Is age 4 to 6, or 10 to 14
What are the symptoms of type 1 diabetes in a child?
Type 1 diabetes often appears suddenly. In children, type 1 diabetes symptoms may be like flu symptoms. Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each child. They can include:
- High levels of glucose in the blood and urine when tested
- Unusual thirst
- Frequent urination (a baby may need more diaper changes, or a toilet-trained child may start wetting his or her pants)
- Extreme hunger but weight loss
- Loss of appetite in younger children
- Blurred vision
- Nausea and vomiting
- Belly (abdominal) pain
- Weakness and fatigue
- Irritability and mood changes
- Serious diaper rash that does get better with treatment
- Fruity breath and fast breathing
- Yeast infection in girls
The symptoms of type 1 diabetes can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is type 1 diabetes diagnosed in a child?
The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. He or she may also ask about your family’s health history. He or she will give your child a physical exam. Your child may also have blood tests, such as:
- Fasting plasma glucose. The blood is tested after at least 8 hours of not eating.
- Random plasma glucose. The blood is tested when there are symptoms of increased thirst, urination, and hunger.
How is type 1 diabetes treated in a child?
Children with type 1 diabetes must have daily injections of insulin to keep the blood glucose level within normal ranges. Insulin is given either by injection or insulin pump. Your child’s healthcare provider will show you how to give your child insulin with either method.
Treatment will also include:
- Eating the right foods to manage blood glucose levels. This includes timing meals and counting carbohydrates.
- Exercise, to lower blood sugar
- Regular blood testing to check blood-glucose levels
- Regular urine testing to check ketone levels
What are the possible complications of type 1 diabetes in a child?
Type 1 diabetes can cause:
- Ketoacidosis. This is when blood sugar levels are very high and the body starts making ketones. This is a very serious condition that needs to be treated right away in the hospital, sometimes in the intensive care unit. If your child is not treated right away, they are at risk for diabetic coma. A child with a diabetic coma loses consciousness because of brain swelling. The brain swells because of the very high blood sugar levels.
- Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). This is also sometimes called an insulin reaction. This occurs when blood glucose drops too low.
Your child’s healthcare provider will tell you how to avoid these problems.
Over time, high blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels. Balancing insulin, diet, and activity can help keep blood sugar levels in the target range and help prevent complications such as:
- Eye problems
- Kidney disease
- Nerve damage
- Tooth and gum problems
- Skin and foot problems
- Heart and blood vessel disease
How can I help my child live with type 1 diabetes?
A type 1 diabetes diagnosis can be stressful for a child and his or her family. A younger child may not understand all the life changes, such as glucose monitoring and insulin injections. A child may feel:
- As if he or she is being punished
- Fearful of death
- Angry toward the parent
Parents can help their child by treating him or her as a normal child with diabetes management as just one aspect of their daily life.
Many areas have diabetes camps, support groups, and other organizations for children with type 1 diabetes and their families. Talk with your child’s healthcare provider for more information.
When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?
Call your child’s healthcare team if you need help. Also call the healthcare team if your child:
- Has new symptoms
- Often has high blood glucose levels
- Often has hypoglycemia
Key points about type 1 diabetes in children
- Type 1 diabetes mellitus is a long-term (chronic) condition. It may start at any age. Only 5% of people with diabetes have type 1.
- Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which blood glucose levels are abnormally high.
- It is most frequently caused by an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.
- Children with type 1 diabetes must have daily injections of insulin to keep the blood glucose level within normal ranges.
- Without insulin, blood glucose levels continue to rise and death will occur.
- With the administration of insulin, and other management activities, children with type 1 diabetes can lead active, healthy lives.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
- Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
- Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.
- Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
- Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
- Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
- If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.