Type 1 diabetes is a condition where the pancreas cannot produce sufficient insulin to lower blood sugar. It can cause several symptoms in children, such as tiredness, blurred vision, and increased thirst and hunger. Type 1 diabetes requires lifelong insulin medication to reduce the risk of potential complications.

Diabetes is a serious health condition that causes problems regulating blood glucose, also known as blood sugar. High blood sugar levels can cause serious complications over time. Type 1 diabetes, previously known as juvenile diabetes, often emerges in children, teens, and young adults but can develop at any age.

The condition differs from type 2 diabetes, although both can occur in childhood. Both types have similar symptoms, but type 1 occurs when a person’s immune system attacks insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. This means their body can no longer produce enough or any insulin, so they need to manually administer this hormone to manage their blood sugar levels. Type 2 develops when people no longer respond to insulin as effectively as they once did.

This article discusses the potential signs and symptoms of type 1 diabetes in children and how to treat and manage the condition.

An image of a child with type 1 diabetes.Share on Pinterest
Bangmaha Art/EyeEm/Getty Images

Diabetes is a condition that causes high blood glucose, or sugar, levels due to difficulty with insulin regulation. Glucose is a source of energy that the body gets from food. The pancreas releases insulin to regulate the amount of glucose in the bloodstream. People with diabetes are unable to produce enough insulin or use it sufficiently to regulate glucose. This causes glucose to build up in the bloodstream, which can cause serious problems over time.

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) estimates that over 34 million Americans have diabetes. Most of these cases are type 2 diabetes, where the body does not use insulin efficiently or make enough insulin to regulate blood sugar.

According to the ADA, 1.6 million people have type 1 diabetes, including around 187,000 children and adolescents. This is a type of diabetes where the pancreas makes no or not enough insulin. It is the result of the immune system mistakenly destroying insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

Type 1 diabetes typically emerges during childhood and adolescence but can occur at any age. Every year there are around 18,200 cases of type 1 diabetes in Americans under the age of 20.

Symptoms of type 1 diabetes are largely the same for most people, but teenagers and adults are more likely to notice them. Therefore, it is important for caregivers to be vigilant and aware of possible warning signs. Symptoms of type 1 diabetes in children can include:

  • increased thirst and urination
  • blurred vision
  • tiredness
  • unexplained weight loss
  • increased hunger

These symptoms typically occur rapidly over a few days to weeks. Increased urination and thirst are commonly some of the first signs of diabetes in children. They might also seem more irritable and restless than usual.

The onset of type 1 diabetes symptoms can occur with diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). This is a serious complication where a lack of glucose entering the cells causes the body to enter a state of ketosis. This is when the body starts breaking down fats into acids called ketones for energy.

DKA is a medical emergency. Symptoms may include:

  • nausea or vomiting
  • dry or flushed skin
  • fruity-smelling breath
  • difficulty breathing
  • stomach pain
  • difficulty thinking

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system attacks its own healthy cells. In type 1 diabetes, these are insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas.

It is unclear what exactly causes the immune system to attack cells in the pancreas. Some genetic factors can increase the risk of type 1 diabetes. For example, people with either HLA-DR3-DQ2 or HLA-DR4-DQ8 or both groups of genes are at a greater risk of type 1 diabetes. A child’s risk of developing type 1 diabetes if a parent has the condition can range from 1 in 17 to 1 in 25.

However, many people without these genes can also develop type 1 diabetes. Some evidence also suggests that environmental factors, such as viral infections, can trigger the condition.

Anyone with a child showing signs or symptoms of diabetes should visit a doctor for a checkup. If there are signs of DKA, it is advisable to contact emergency services immediately.

Diagnosing type 1 diabetes will involve a blood test. These tests can measure several aspects of bodily functions that could indicate diabetes. Most doctors will use a random plasma glucose test to diagnose type 1 diabetes. This involves checking blood sugar at the time of testing. A blood sugar level of more than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) indicates diabetes.

Healthcare professionals can also use other tests to diagnose diabetes. These can include fasting blood sugar tests that require not eating the night before. The A1C test is a measurement of average blood sugar levels over the past few months. Glucose tolerance tests measure blood sugar before and after a drink that contains glucose.

A doctor may also check for autoantibodies if they suspect type 1 diabetes. These are substances that suggest the immune system is attacking healthy body tissues. They might also check for ketones via a urine sample. People with type 2 diabetes do not have autoantibodies in their blood and are unlikely to have ketones in their urine.

There is currently no cure for type 1 diabetes. However, treatments are available to help manage the symptoms and reduce the risk of complications.

Children with type 1 diabetes will need to administer daily insulin doses to regulate their blood sugar levels. This could be through a syringe, pump, or insulin pen. Insulin does not come in pill form as the stomach acid would destroy it too quickly.

Some children will be unable to reach a healthy blood sugar level with insulin alone. In these cases, doctors may prescribe diabetes medications to take with insulin, such as pramlintide. Doctors will also suggest regularly checking blood sugar levels to avoid complications.

Following healthy lifestyle habits are also important for people to manage type 1 diabetes throughout their life. This can include:

  • eating a healthy diet
  • being physically active
  • keeping blood pressure within a healthy range
  • controlling cholesterol levels

Type 1 diabetes can cause serious health complications over time, including:

  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • kidney disease
  • dental and eye problems
  • nerve damage
  • foot problems
  • depression
  • sleep apnea

The first onset of type 1 diabetes symptoms is typically DKA, which is a medical emergency. Caregivers should be aware of the signs of DKA and seek immediate medical attention if their child experiences any of the symptoms.

Useful resources for caregivers and children with type 1 diabetes may include:

Type 1 diabetes is a chronic condition that typically develops in children and adolescents but can occur at any age. The body attacks insulin-producing cells, resulting in no or limited production of insulin, which can cause high blood sugar levels. This can cause serious complications over time.

Symptoms and warning signs of type 1 diabetes in children may include increased hunger, thirst, and urination, as well as blurred vision, tiredness, and unexplained weight loss. People with type 1 diabetes require lifelong insulin medication to regulate their blood sugar. They can help manage their symptoms by administering insulin, following a healthy lifestyle, and being aware of potential warning signs of serious complications.