Type 1 Diabetes: What Is It?

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Maybe a kid you know always eats a snack during a soccer game or goes to the school nurse before lunch to get a shot.

If you have a friend or a classmate like this — or this sounds just like you — you're not alone. Thousands of kids all over the world do stuff like this every day because they have type 1 diabetes (say: dye-uh-be-tees). What is it? Let's find out.

What Is Diabetes?

What Happens in Diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease that affects how the body uses glucose (say: gloo-kose), a sugar that is the body's main source of fuel. Just as an iPod needs a battery, your body needs glucose to keep running. Here's how it should work.

  1. You eat.
  2. Glucose from the food gets into your bloodstream.
  3. Your pancreas makes a hormone called insulin (say: in-suh-lin).
  4. Insulin helps the glucose get into the body's cells.
  5. 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 if someone has diabetes, the body either 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.

Type 1 Diabetes

The two major types of diabetes are type 1 and type 2.

In type 1 diabetes (which used to be called insulin-dependent diabetes or juvenile diabetes), the pancreas can't make insulin. The body can still get glucose from food but the glucose can't get into the cells where it's needed. Glucose stays in the blood, which makes the blood sugar level very high and causes health problems.

To fix the problem, someone with 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.

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. 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.

How Do People Know if They Have Type 1 Diabetes?

When people first have diabetes, they usually:

  • 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 (pee)
  • 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 as the body starts to use fat and muscle for fuel because it can't use sugar normally
  • feel tired a lot because the body can't use sugar for energy

Getting treatment for diabetes can stop these symptoms from happening. A doctor can do tests on a kid's blood to find out if he or she has diabetes.

If your doctor thinks you might have type 1 diabetes, he or she might have you visit a doctor called a pediatric endocrinologist (say: pee-dee-ah-trik en-doh-krih-nahl-eh-jist), a type of doctor who helps kids with diabetes, growth problems, and more.

Living With Type 1 Diabetes

Kids who have type 1 diabetes have to pay a little more attention to what they're eating and doing than kids without diabetes. They need to:

  • check their blood sugar levels often
  • give themselves insulin shots, have someone help give them shots, or use an insulin pump
  • follow a healthy eating plan so they can keep blood sugar levels under control and grow normally
  • exercise regularly
  • 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

Kids with diabetes will have to do special things sometimes, like eat a snack on the bus during a long school trip. Or they might have to wake up earlier than everyone else at a sleepover to take their insulin and have some breakfast to keep their blood sugar levels under control.

Although this might seem like a lot of work, the good news is that new products and equipment are available that help make it easier for kids to take care of their diabetes. Scientists are working to invent ways to make it easier to check blood sugar levels and give insulin. They're also trying to find ways to get insulin into the body without shots. And there's hope that one day a cure will be found.

Even though kids with diabetes have to do some special things, it doesn't keep them from doing the stuff they love. They can still play sports, go out with their friends, and go on trips. So if you have a friend with diabetes, let him or her know you can deal with it. Being friends is all about having fun together, not having a perfect pancreas!

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: July 2009

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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