Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes, formerly known as insulin-dependent diabetes or juvenile diabetes, is a chronic condition characterized by the inability of the pancreas to produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels within a normal range. It has no cure and must be managed to avoid serious health problems.

Last Modified: June 16, 2022
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What Is Type 1 Diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which your body does not produce enough insulin, a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar levels. Unlike Type 2 diabetes, which can develop later in life, Type 1 diabetes is most often inherited and can affect young children. Researchers continue to study how Type 1 diabetes develops, but its precise cause is still undetermined.

With Type 1 diabetes, the body attacks pancreatic cells with antibodies, preventing the pancreas from producing insulin. Poor pancreatic function leads to glucose build-up in the bloodstream, causing many of the health complications and symptoms of diabetes.

Among the 1 in 10 Americans living with diabetes, only 8% of them have been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Because Type 1 is an autoimmune disease, the same diabetes diet and exercise recommendations typically prescribed to reverse prediabetes or to treat Type 2 diabetes are not the only tools used to control it.

Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes share many of the same symptoms. One key difference is that symptoms appear sooner with Type 1. With Type 2 diabetes, signs develop slowly and can go unnoticed for years.

Symptoms of Type 1 diabetes include:
  • Frequent urination
  • Recurring thirst
  • Extreme hunger
  • Blurred eyesight
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Fatigue and general body weakness
  • Bedwetting in children
  • Genital itching
  • Cuts that heal slowly

Having one or more of these symptoms doesn’t automatically signal diabetes as the cause. Only a doctor can confirm whether you have diabetes, and which type.

When to Seek Medical Attention

If you experience symptoms of diabetes, seek medical attention promptly. A physician will review your medical history and run a blood panel to check your glucose levels.

Sometimes Type 1 diabetes can lead to diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). Diabetic ketoacidosis is most common in Type 1 patients but can also happen with other forms of diabetes. Diabetic ketoacidosis occurs when the body can’t access enough glucose for fuel. Fat cells then break down, creating chemicals, called ketones, that build up in the blood and turn it acidic. Untreated DKA is life-threatening and requires immediate care.

Symptoms of DKA are:
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Fruity smelling breath
  • Lack of concentration
  • Dry skin

If you find yourself urinating excessively or unable to quench your thirst, these could be signs of Type 1 diabetes. A third key signal is an uncharacteristic hunger, even though you are eating regularly.

Causes of Type 1 Diabetes

Researchers have not identified a clear cause of Type 1 diabetes. Data from medical studies suggests that Type 1 diabetes may be genetic in nature, meaning you may be more likely to develop it if you have a family history of the disease.

Scientists are also studying other factors, such as exposure to viruses, as Type 1 diabetes triggers. Research is ongoing and the intricate relationship between insulin and glucose remains a focus of study.

Insulin

Insulin is a vital hormone for lowering blood sugar. Lack of insulin — or the body’s inability to respond to it — can lead to diabetes. Besides controlling blood glucose, insulin plays an important role in storing fats.

Insulin helps control blood sugar levels by communicating with the liver and fat cells to take glucose from the bloodstream. It helps your body’s cells take in sugars (glucose) that are used as energy. If the body has the right amount of energy, the hormone signals the liver to store excess glucose as glycogen.

In Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas produces insufficient levels of insulin, or no insulin, forcing the body to find other sources of energy. That leads to a cascade of symptoms and related health problems. It also requires a long-term regimen of insulin use.

Glucose

Glucose is sugar extracted from consumed food, which the body uses for energy. Insulin moves glucose from the bloodstream to the body’s cells as a stored energy source.

Glucose levels represent a key measuring stick for diagnosing diabetes. You must keep your blood sugar levels within a normal range to prevent developing Type 2 diabetes and to ensure that Type 1 diabetes is properly managed.

Low blood sugar levels can cause a variety of symptoms, from dizziness and fatigue to an irregular heartbeat. High blood sugar levels can cause long-term damage to the body’s organs. Large and small blood vessels, kidneys, eyes and the heart are at risk, as are nerves, gums and feet. There is also an increased risk for stroke and heart attack.

Risk Factors of Type 1 Diabetes

Researchers don’t know the exact cause of Type 1 diabetes, but individuals with a family history of Type 1 diabetes have a higher chance of developing the condition. Researchers also note that if the father has Type 1, the probability of one of his offspring developing it are higher than if the mother had the condition.

Although Type 1 diabetes can appear at any age, statistics show two noticeable peaks. The first peak occurs in children ages 4 to 7, while the second peak is in children ages 10 to 14.

Researchers are also investigating the possibility that exposure to certain viruses that compromise the immune system can trigger Type 1 diabetes.

Prevention of Type 1 Diabetes

Unlike Type 2 diabetes and prediabetes, there is no defined medical strategy to prevent Type 1 diabetes. Research is ongoing, with experts studying genetic factors and various ways to prevent the disease.

Consult with your doctor about the probability of passing Type 1 diabetes to your children and to evaluate any measures you can take, including participating in clinical trials.

Type 1 Diabetes Diagnosis

If you have diabetes symptoms, your doctor may recommend a diabetes test to confirm the disease. The most common is the random plasma glucose test, or RPG, which measures your blood glucose level at the time the test is taken. Your doctor may also use the A1C blood test, which measures glucose levels for the past three months.

To find out if you have Type 1 diabetes, your doctor likely will test for certain autoantibodies that attack your healthy cells and tissues by mistake. The presence of certain types of autoantibodies, along with ketones in the urine, are common in Type 1 diabetes but not with Type 2.

Type 1 Diabetes Treatment

Because Type 1 diabetes stems from insulin inadequacy, adding insulin to control blood sugar levels and avoid further health complications is the primary treatment of the disease. Those with Type 1 diabetes typically have insulin injected, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream to assist glucose access to the cells that need it.

Insulin is not taken in pill form because digestive juices would destroy it before it gets to the bloodstream. Insulin can be administered in one of the following methods:

  • Injection with a syringe
  • Through a pump
  • With a pen

Insulin substitution therapy is the most widely used treatment for Type 1 diabetes. However, this approach might not satisfy the optimal blood sugar levels in many diabetic patients.

With current advancements in medicine, experts are discovering how to understand the early-stage development of diabetes and how genetics plays a role. Some of the emerging treatment options include pancreas transplant and islet cell transplantation which, if effective, could eliminate the need for continued insulin substitution therapy.

A balanced diet designed with help from a dietitian or your doctor can help keep blood sugar levels in the required range. Consult your doctor about any exercise regimen you plan to begin to ensure a safe and effective balance with your personal medical history, medications and overall health.

Complications of Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes can be a complex disease to manage. Despite your best efforts, complications may arise from blood glucose levels that are too high or too low.

Hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, can come from dietary imbalances, fighting an illness or not taking enough insulin. If your blood sugar is higher than your target range, you may need to administer an additional dose of insulin.

A significant concern with diabetes is hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. Symptoms of hypoglycemia may include shakiness, sweating and headaches. This happens after skipping a meal, getting more physical activity than normal, not eating enough carbohydrates or administering too much insulin. Untreated hypoglycemia can cause a loss of consciousness.

To stave off hypoglycemia, you can eat a piece of hard candy or have a glass of fruit juice to quickly boost your blood sugar levels. Be sure to check your blood sugar again afterward to make sure they are under control.

Ketoacidosis is also a potential outcome of low blood sugar. If you suspect you have ketoacidosis, you can check your urine for excess ketones with an over-the-counter ketones test kit. However, these tests are not as accurate as blood tests that can be performed in your doctor’s office. Always consult your physician if you have concerns.

Please seek the advice of a medical professional before making health care decisions.