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Diabetes is a disease that affects how the body uses glucose, the main type of sugar in the blood. Glucose comes from the foods we eat and is the major source of energy needed to fuel the body’s functions.
After you eat a meal, your body breaks down the foods you eat into glucose and other nutrients, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream from the gastrointestinal tract. The glucose level in the blood rises after a meal and triggers the pancreas to make the hormone insulin and release it into the bloodstream. But in people with diabetes, the body either can’t make or can’t respond to insulin properly.
There are two major types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes cause blood sugar levels to become higher than normal. However, they cause it in different ways.
Type 1 diabetes (formerly called insulin-dependent diabetes or juvenile diabetes) results when the pancreas loses its ability to make the hormone insulin. In type 1 diabetes, the person’s own immune system attacks and destroys the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. Once those cells are destroyed, they won’t ever make insulin again.
Type 1 diabetes can’t be prevented, and there is no practical way to predict who will get it. There is nothing that either a parent or the child did to cause the disease. Once a person has type 1 diabetes, it does not go away and requires lifelong treatment. Kids and teens with type 1 diabetes depend on daily insulin injections or an insulin pump to control their blood glucose levels.
A person 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.
Parents of a child with typical symptoms of type 1 diabetes may notice that their child:
But in some cases, other symptoms may be the signal that something is wrong. Sometimes the first sign of diabetes is bedwetting in a child who has been dry at night. The possibility of diabetes should also be suspected if a vaginal yeast infection (also called a Candida infection) happens in a girl who hasn’t started puberty yet.
If these early symptoms of diabetes aren’t recognized and treatment isn’t started, chemicals called ketones can build up in the child’s blood and cause stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, fruity-smelling breath, breathing problems, and even loss of consciousness. Sometimes these symptoms are mistaken for the flu or appendicitis. Doctors call this serious condition diabetic ketoacidosis, or DKA.
The good news is that proper treatment can stop or control these diabetes symptoms and reduce the risk of long-term problems. Doctors can confirm if a person has diabetes by testing blood samples for glucose. If you think your child has symptoms of diabetes, talk to your doctor.
If diabetes is suspected or confirmed, the doctor may refer your child to a pediatric endocrinologist, a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of kids with diseases of the endocrine system, such as diabetes and growth disorders.