Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body does not produce enough insulin. Blood sugar levels remain high unless a person uses medication to manage them. An immune system reaction may be the cause of type 1 diabetes.

Research from 2016 suggests that 1.3 million adults in the United States have type 1 diabetes, representing around 5.8% of adults with diabetes in the country.

There is no cure for type 1 diabetes. However, with medical help, people can manage the condition and lead a full and active life.

In this article, we explore the causes, how to manage it, and how to recognize the symptoms.

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Diabetes occurs when damage to beta cells in the pancreas means the body can no longer produce enough insulin. Insulin is a hormone that the body needs to manage blood glucose levels, also known as blood sugar.

Type 1 diabetes is most likely to occur from an immune system reaction. This reaction causes the body to attack its own insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. It usually appears first in children and young adults, but it can emerge at any age.

Insulin enables glucose from food to enter the body’s cells to produce energy. If glucose cannot enter these cells, too much sugar will accumulate in the blood, a symptom known as hyperglycemia. Eventually, it will cause damage throughout the body.

In addition, the person’s cells will not have enough glucose to function properly, which can lead to fatigue and other issues.

Lifestyle choices may help prevent type 2 diabetes, but they cannot prevent type 1. There is also currently no cure, but there are ways to manage the disease.

Learn more here about the link between the pancreas and diabetes.

The symptoms of type 1 diabetes usually appear over a few days to weeks. They include:

Anyone who experiences these symptoms should seek medical help as soon as possible.

For 1 in 3 children, the first signs will be those of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). This is a potentially life threatening condition where too many ketones circulate in the body, leading to acidosis. It needs immediate medical attention.

Symptoms include:

  • a fruity smell on the breath
  • dry or flushed skin
  • nausea or vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • breathing difficulty
  • confusion and difficulty focusing

In time, a range of complications can arise, leading to various other symptoms.

The honeymoon phase

When a person first has a diagnosis, their body may continue to produce insulin for a while.

During this time, their insulin levels can fluctuate. They may need fewer insulin shots to maintain healthy blood glucose levels — doctors refer to this as the honeymoon phase.

As the individual varies their insulin doses, it can seem that their condition is improving. However, this is unlikely to be the case.

People should continue to work with their healthcare team and follow the recommended treatment plan during this time.

Learn more about the honeymoon phase of diabetes.


Managing type 1 diabetes can help reduce the risk of various complications.

These include:

Following the treatment plan can help reduce the risk of complications.

The main treatment for type 1 diabetes is insulin. People can take it using:

  • a needle and syringe
  • an insulin pen
  • an insulin pump

If insulin does not fully control glucose levels, some people may need additional mediation, such as Pramlintide (Symlin), which helps manage glucose levels after eating.

A doctor will advise on the best option for each person.

Find more detail on medications for treating type 1 diabetes.

Find out how Medicare can help with treatment for type 1 diabetes.

Experts do not yet precisely know what causes type 1 diabetes. It may be due to genetic factors, as it can run in families.

It may also result from exposure to a virus. As the immune system fights against the virus, it starts to work unnecessarily against healthy cells, in this case, insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

Some research has examined possible links with exposure to environmental toxins or certain dietary factors, but there is not enough evidence to prove this.

If a person has symptoms that may indicate type 1 diabetes, a doctor will carry out blood tests.

A random plasma glucose test can identify blood glucose levels at a specific time. An A1C test, which measures blood glucose levels over the previous 3 months, can show how long levels have been high.

These tests can show if diabetes is present, but a person will need more tests to find out if it is type 1 or type 2.

Healthcare professionals may perform a blood test to look for autoantibodies that are more common in people with type 1 diabetes than type 2.

A person with untreated type 1 diabetes is at risk of developing DKA, which can be life threatening.

If they take too much insulin, they also face a risk of hypoglycemia, also known as low blood sugar. Symptoms include:

  • confusion
  • fatigue
  • seizures
  • coma
  • in some cases, death

In the long term, a person with type 1 diabetes will also have a higher risk of complications that can affect the nervous system, cardiovascular health, and other body systems. Some of these can be life threatening.

Seeking medical help and following a treatment plan can help reduce the risks that type 1 diabetes poses.

Before the discovery of insulin, a person with type 1 diabetes could expect to live only a few weeks or months after initial symptoms. Now, with medical help, it is possible for individuals with the condition to live a full and active life, although it may affect their life expectancy.

Research shows that people with type 1 diabetes will have a lifespan that is 12 years shorter, on average, than those without the disease. However, this will not be true for everyone. Genetic and other factors can affect a person’s chance of developing specific complications. They may play a role in determining their outcome.

One potentially life threatening complication of diabetes is neuropathy, which is also known as nerve damage. The symptoms tend to peak 15–20 years after a diabetes diagnosis. People who do not develop neuropathy by this time appear to have a higher chance of living into older age, according to some research. The outlook for type 1 diabetes is improving as new information and treatment options emerge.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks and destroys cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. This can lead to high sugar levels in the blood, which can have severe consequences.

Early signs include frequent urination, increased hunger and thirst, and vision changes, but diabetic ketoacidosis can also be the first indicator. In time, complications can develop.

Treatment with insulin is necessary for managing diabetes and preventing complications. With treatment, a person with type 1 diabetes can live a full and active life.