Type 1 diabetes: What is it?

Type 1 diabetes is a disease that is caused by the bodies failure to produce insulin (specifically the pancreas), which prevents other cells in the body from getting the sugar they need and causing sugar to build up in the blood.

Type 1 diabetes is most commonly known as "juvenile diabetes", since it typically starts in childhood. While Type 1 diabetes has no known cure, people can live very long and healthy lives with proper care and treatment. According to the American Diabetes Association:

  • Five percent to 10 percent of people with diabetes have Type 1 diabetes
  • One in every 400 children and adolescents has Type 1 diabetes
  • Type 1 diabetes most often develops in girls when they reach 10 to 12 years of age and in boys when they reach 12 to 14 years of age
  • The incidence of Type 1 diabetes seems to be increasing, especially in children from birth to age four

Some people have a predisposition to diabetes by virtue of the fact they have a parent or sibling who also has the disease. However, most people who develop Type 1 diabetes have no previous family history of the disease.

Symptoms of Type 1 diabetes include:
  • Being very thirsty
  • Increased urine output
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Being hungrier than usual (sometimes)

Symptoms of diabetes generally appear over a few days or a few weeks. These symptoms may be more noticeable if you have been battling the flu or another illness. Unfortunately, because some of these symptoms do mimic the flu, they are often ignored. Waiting too long to get proper medical care may result in diabetic ketoacidosis which can be life-threatening. Symptoms of ketoacidosis include:

  • Flushed, hot and dry skin
  • Unexplained lack of appetite
  • Abdominal pain and vomiting
  • Fruity breath odor that is inordinately strong
  • Confusion is also a common symptom
  • Breathing changes including fast, shallow breathing

Type 1 diabetes is caused by the immune system destroying beta cells which produce insulin. As a result, our bodies are unable to supply enough insulin to keep our body healthy. Enteroviruses, such as coxsackie viruses and echoviruses, which live in the intestines of humans and other animals, may contribute to the possibility of developing Type 1 diabetes.

If not controlled, diabetes can cause complications that can affect nearly every organ in the body, including:

  • Heart and blood vessel damage - studies show that controlling diabetes can prevent or stop the progression of heart and blood vessel disease in diabetics. Left uncontrolled, blood vessel damage can lead to a host of problems including potential amputation of the leg and foot (more than 60 percent of amputations are due to diabetes).
  • Eye problems - the leading cause of blindness in the United States, diabetes can cause glaucoma, cataracts and diabetic retinopathy. Left untreated these diseases of the eye may potentially lead to blindness.
  • Kidney damage - typically treated with medications that would lower blood pressure (even if you don't have high blood pressure), diabetes is the most common cause of kidney failure in the United States.
  • Nerve damage - high blood glucose levels can cause loss of feeling in the feet. Early symptoms of this type of damage are often a burning sensation in the feet. If left unchecked, diabetes can cause pain in the legs, arms, and hands. Nerve damage can cause problems with digestion, going to the bathroom or having sex.
  • Tooth decay and gum disease – while the reasons are unknown, people with Type 1 diabetes are at higher risk for gum disease. Both can be prevented by having a good oral care routine and seeing a dentist regularly. 
Anyone who is displaying symptoms that may be associated with diabetes of any type is strongly encouraged to seek medical advice. Only with proper treatment may this disease be controlled and allow the person to live a normal life.

Used with permission from Diabetic Health Guide
Image credit: Häggström, Mikael. "Medical gallery of Mikael Häggström 2014". Wikiversity Journal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.008. ISSN 20018762. (See above. All used images are in public domain.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons