About type-1 diabetes
Type-1 diabetes happens when cells in the pancreas stop making the hormone insulin. Insulin is like a key that unlocks the cells of the body so that glucose – the simplest form of sugar – can get in. Glucose is the ‘fuel’ that gives the body energy.
When a child’s body stops making insulin to unlock cells and glucose can’t get into them, a few things start happening.
The body isn’t making the energy it needs, so a child with diabetes gets very tired.
Also, glucose builds up in the child’s blood. This is the high blood sugar that most people think of when they hear about diabetes.
When there’s high sugar in the blood, the kidneys try to flush it out in urine. This is why you find high sugar in the urine of a child with diabetes. And because the body is making lots of urine to try to get rid of the sugar, it’s also using and losing lots of water. This can lead to dehydration.
Type-1 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes in children. It used to be known as insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) or juvenile onset diabetes.
Causes of type-1 diabetes
We don’t know what causes type-1 diabetes. We do know that genetics and the environment can increase the risk of a child getting diabetes.
Signs and symptoms of type-1 diabetes
The symptoms of type-1 diabetes usually develop suddenly over a period of days – or sometimes hours. They can develop over weeks and months too.
Early signs and symptoms of type-1 diabetes include:
- frequent urination and/or bed-wetting in your previously ‘dry’ child
- increased thirst and the desire to drink more than usual
- weight loss
- mood changes
- blurred vision.
Some other possible signs or symptoms include:
oral thrush, vaginal thrush or skin infections
- fruity-smelling breath
- extreme hunger.
You might also notice your child not doing as well as usual at school, because he isn’t feeling well.
If your child has any of these symptoms, see your GP.
When to get urgent help for type-1 diabetes symptoms
If early symptoms of type-1 diabetes aren’t picked up and treated, or diabetes comes on quickly, your child might also experience nausea, vomiting and tummy pain.
A child with type-1 diabetes can become very unwell very quickly. Call 000 for urgent medical help if you notice any of the following symptoms in your child:
These symptoms might point to diabetic ketoacidosis. This is a life-threatening condition that happens when there’s no insulin, which causes chemicals called ketones to build up in the blood and urine. Blood sugar levels are often very high.
Tests for type-1 diabetes
Your GP can diagnose diabetes in your child by doing a finger-prick blood test and a urine test and by looking at your child’s symptoms. If there’s glucose in your child’s urine and a high level of glucose in his blood, the GP will send you and your child to your nearest paediatric emergency department.
If your GP doesn’t diagnose diabetes, and you’re still worried about your child or her symptoms are getting worse, go to your nearest emergency department.
Treatment for type-1 diabetes
There is currently no cure for type-1 diabetes. Injected insulin is the only treatment.
If your child has type-1 diabetes, he can manage his condition successfully and live a long, healthy life by keeping his blood sugar levels within the target range of 4-8 mmol/l. Your child can keep his blood sugar levels within this range by:
- injecting insulin
- eating certain foods in the right amounts and at the right times
- doing physical activity.
Your child will need to check her blood sugar levels at least four times a day to make sure they stay within the right range. Depending on your child’s age, you or another carer might need to help her with this.
Your child will have a team of diabetes health professionals to care for him. These professionals usually include paediatric endocrinologists, diabetes nurse educators, dietitians, social workers and psychologists. They’ll show you and your child how to best manage his diabetes by:
- teaching you and your child how to measure your child’s blood sugar
- explaining what to do when the blood sugar goes outside the target range
- teaching you and your child how to inject insulin using a syringe or insulin pen device
- teaching you and your child about healthy eating and exercise
- talking about your child’s diagnosis and ongoing treatment.
Prevention of type-1 diabetes
You can’t prevent type-1 diabetes.
You can lower your child’s risk of complications of type-1 diabetes by keeping your child’s blood sugar levels within the target range most of the time.
Complications of type-1 diabetes
High blood sugar levels can lead to long-term complications like nerve damage, kidney damage, vision problems, heart disease or stroke.
Low blood sugar levels can lead to drowsiness, aggression, unconsciousness or seizure.