Living with Diabetes

What is Type 1 Diabetes?


Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which the pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin, or stops making it altogether. Insulin is a hormone that helps cells convert sugars from the blood into energy. When you don’t have enough insulin, your body can’t absorb enough blood sugar, and it starts to accumulate in your blood. Over time, this can damage your heart, blood vessels, and other important organs in your body.

Type 1 diabetes can develop at any age, but it is most often diagnosed in people when they are young, which is why it used to be called juvenile diabetes. While there is currently no cure, it can be managed with insulin injections, following a healthy lifestyle, and working with your care team to keep your blood sugar levels under control.

Symptoms

Common symptoms of type 1 diabetes include:

  • Extreme thirst
  • Increased urination
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Increased hunger
  • Nausea
  • Blurry vision
  • Mood Changes

What Causes Type 1 Diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is not caused by a person’s diet or lifestyle. It is an autoimmune disorder, and it’s not known what causes type 1 diabetes. It develops when the body’s immune system starts to attack the cells in the pancreas that create insulin, called beta cells. After months or years of this process, enough beta cells have been destroyed that the pancreas can no longer make insulin.

Risk Factors

There are several possible risk factors for type 1 diabetes:

  • Family history. If your parents, siblings, or other members of your family have been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, you may be at increased risk.
  • Genetics. Some people have genes that make them more likely to develop type 1 diabetes.
  • Age. People are more likely to develop type 1 diabetes as a child or adolescent. However, you can be diagnosed at any age.
  • Race. In the U.S., white people are more likely to develop type 1 diabetes than people from other ethnic backgrounds.

Complications

If type 1 diabetes is not properly managed, blood sugar levels can build up over time. This can damage many different parts of the body, leading to serious complications, or even death. Complications include:

  • Cardiovascular disease including heart attack, stroke, coronary artery disease, hypertension, and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
  • Kidney disease or kidney failure
  • Neuropathy (nerve damage) including nerve pain, numbness, and tingling
  • Gastrointestinal problems including nausea, vomiting, constipation, and diarrhea
  • Foot problems caused by poor circulation in the feet, including wounds that are slow to heal, and infections that can lead to amputation
  • Eye and vision problems including retina damage, cataracts, glaucoma, and blindness
  • Skin and mouth problems including increased risk of skin infections, gum disease, and dry mouth
  • Erectile dysfunction

Prevention

There is currently no known way to prevent type 1 diabetes. However, by managing the disease and keeping blood sugar levels under control with diet, exercise, and insulin, you can prevent complications from developing or getting worse.

Testing for Type 1 Diabetes

There are several tests to diagnose type 1 diabetes. The most common is the glycated hemoglobin test, or the A1C test, which measures your average blood sugar levels over several months. Other tests include a random blood sugar test, in which blood samples are taken at random and repeated over time; and a fasting blood sugar test, in which blood is tested after an overnight fast. If you are diagnosed with diabetes, additional blood and urine tests may be given to determine if you have type 1 or type 2. 

Managing Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes can be managed with insulin therapy, getting regular exercise, and eating a healthy diet, including counting and limiting carbohydrates. It’s necessary to continuously monitor blood sugar levels to make sure they’re staying in a safe range. It’s also important to manage stress by getting enough sleep, learning relaxation techniques, and getting emotional support. Patients can work with their doctor and diabetes care team to create a diabetes management plan specific for each individual’s needs.

Hypoglycemia

Hypoglycemia occurs when blood sugar levels get too low, usually because of too much insulin or too long of a wait between meals. It can cause symptoms including a racing heartbeat, shaking, dizziness, confusion, mood swings, and irritability. Hypoglycemia can come on suddenly, so it’s a good idea to closely monitor blood sugars to make sure they’re in a healthy range before driving or operating heavy machinery.

Get Support

In addition to a primary care physician, a diabetes health care team can include an endocrinologist, or a doctor who specializes in diabetes and hormones like insulin; a nurse to help coordinate your care, a dietitian to help with meal planning, and specialists to help with specific concerns, such as problems with the heart, eyes, or feet. It can also include a mental health professional to help with stress. Support groups like the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation’s PEP Squad can provide additional resources.

Curing Diabetes Type 1

There is currently no cure for type 1 diabetes. The Diabetes Research Institute (DRI) is considered by many families to be the best hope for a cure, with researchers studying how to restore natural insulin production so that the body can stabilize blood sugar levels on its own.

 

The Diabetes Research Institute Foundation's What is Diabetes? brochure has important information about type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and more.
Get more answers to your questions about type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes symptoms and treatments. (In Spanish: ¿Que es La Diabetes?).
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Diabetes Research Institute Foundation's Guide for School Personnel and Childcare Providers
Educate teachers, school personnel and other child care providers about taking care of your child with type 1 diabetes. 
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Become a DRI Insider and learn more about our progress toward a cure for diabetes.
Get news about research toward a cure, diabetes management tips, information for parents of children with type 1 diabetes and more. Sign up and become a DRI Insider today!
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A Guide for School Personnel and Child Care Providers

Educate teachers, school personnel and other child care providers about taking care of your child with type 1 diabetes. Download this helpful guide now.