What is diabetes type 1?

Type 1 diabetes: Overview

Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong disease that develops when the pancreas stops making insulin. The body needs insulin to let sugar (glucose) move from the blood into the body's cells, where it can be used for energy or stored for later use.

Without insulin, the sugar cannot get into the cells to do its work. It stays in the blood instead. This can cause high blood sugar levels. A person has diabetes when the blood sugar is too high. Over time, diabetes can lead to diseases of the heart, blood vessels, nerves, kidneys, and eyes.

To treat type 1 diabetes, you need insulin. You can give yourself insulin through an insulin pump, an insulin pen, or a syringe (needle). Insulin, exercise, and a healthy diet can help prevent or delay problems from diabetes.

With education and support, you will treat diabetes as a part of your life—not your whole life. Seek support when you need it from your family, friends, and your doctor or other diabetes experts.

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong disease that happens when the pancreas stops making insulin. It usually develops in children and young adults.

Insulin lets sugar (glucose) move from the blood into the body's cells, where it can be used for energy or stored. Without insulin, sugar can't get into the cells, and your blood sugar gets too high. Over time, high blood sugar can lead to problems with your eyes, heart, blood vessels, nerves, and kidneys.

Treatment for type 1 diabetes focuses on keeping your blood sugar level in a safe range by eating a balanced diet, taking insulin, and getting regular exercise.

What happens when you have type 1 diabetes?

Over time, high blood sugar can lead to serious problems. It can:

  • Harm your eyes, nerves, and kidneys.
  • Damage your blood vessels, leading to heart disease and stroke.
  • Reduce blood flow and cause nerve damage to parts of your body, especially your feet. This can cause slow healing and pain when you walk.

That's why it's important to keep your blood sugar within a target range.

A more sudden problem can happen when the blood sugar level gets so high that a serious chemical imbalance develops in the blood. This condition can be life-threatening and needs quick treatment.

When people hear the word "diabetes," they often think of problems like these. But daily care and treatment can help prevent or delay these problems. The goal is to keep your blood sugar in a target range. It's the best way to reduce your chance of having more problems from diabetes.

What are the symptoms of type 1 diabetes?

Symptoms of type 1 diabetes are caused by high blood sugar. They usually develop quickly, over a few days to weeks. At first, symptoms may be overlooked or mistaken for another illness, like the flu.

Symptoms include:

  • Urinating often. This may be more noticeable at night.
  • Being very thirsty. This happens if a person urinates so often that they get dehydrated.
  • Losing weight without trying. This happens because the body isn't able to get energy from sugar. Instead, the body uses muscle and fat for energy.
  • Increased hunger. The body isn't using all the calories that it can. Many calories leave the body through urine.
  • Blurry vision. When sugar builds up in the lens of the eye, it sucks extra water into the eye. This changes the shape of the lens and blurs vision.
  • Feeling very tired. The body isn't using the calories it takes in, and it isn't getting the energy it needs.

How is type 1 diabetes treated?

Treatment for type 1 diabetes focuses on keeping blood sugar levels within a target range. This will help prevent problems from diabetes such as eye, kidney, heart, and nerve disease.

To manage type 1 diabetes, a person will:

  • Take insulin every day. This may be done through an insulin pump or a syringe (needle).
  • Check blood sugar levels often.
  • Make healthy food choices.
  • Get regular physical activity. Exercise helps the body to use insulin in a more efficient way.
  • Get routine screening tests and exams. These are done to watch for signs of problems.
  • Avoid smoking.

Blood sugar levels are easier to manage when mealtimes, amount of food, and exercise are similar every day.

Medicine to treat other health problems, like high blood pressure or high cholesterol, may be needed. This may help prevent problems from diabetes.

Can type 1 diabetes be prevented?

Currently there is no way to prevent type 1 diabetes. But studies are looking into ways to prevent it in those who are most likely to get it. If you have a parent, brother, or sister with type 1 diabetes, and you're willing to take part in a study, talk to your doctor.

How is type 1 diabetes diagnosed?

The doctor will ask about past health issues and do a physical exam. Blood tests are done to measure how much sugar is in the blood. The doctor will use those test results and the American Diabetes Association criteria to diagnose diabetes.

Some people are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes because they have symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis.

It may be hard to tell what type of diabetes a person has. If so, the doctor may do a C-peptide test or test for autoantibodies to diagnose type 1 diabetes or a slowly developing form of type 1 diabetes called latent autoimmune diabetes in adults (LADA). Some rare forms of diabetes are caused by a genetic problem. Genetic testing may be done to diagnose them. This includes maturity onset diabetes of the young (MODY). There are many types of MODY, depending on the gene that is affected.

How can you care for yourself when you have type 1 diabetes?

There's plenty you can do to care for yourself when you have diabetes. Check your blood sugar and take insulin as directed by your doctor. Get regular exercise. Follow your meal plan to know how much carbohydrate to eat. Check your feet daily for sores. Get checkups every 3 to 6 months.

How is surgery used to treat type 1 diabetes?

Surgery may be an option for certain people who have type 1 diabetes. Choices may include:

Pancreas transplant.

When insulin isn't enough to keep blood sugar in your target range, a pancreas transplant might be an option. If it's successful, you may no longer have symptoms or need to treat diabetes. But you may still get complications from diabetes. And you must take medicine to keep your body from rejecting the new organ.

Pancreatic islet cell surgery.

This involves inserting a small group of donated pancreas cells (islet cells) through a vein in your liver. After surgery, these cells start to make insulin. If they can make enough, you may no longer need insulin injections. But you must take medicine to prevent rejection.

Type 1 Diabetes: What Does It Mean for My Child?

What increases the risk of type 1 diabetes?

Risk factors are things that increase the chances of getting sick or having a problem. Risk factors for type 1 diabetes include:

  • Family history. A family history of type 1 diabetes increases the chance of a person having autoantibodies such as islet cell antibodies. These antibodies attack the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. But a family history of type 1 diabetes doesn't mean that someone will definitely have the disease.
  • Presence of autoantibodies in the blood. People who have both a family history of type 1 diabetes and two or more autoantibodies in their blood are likely to get type 1 diabetes. If a person has family members with type 1 diabetes, the person can be tested to look for autoantibodies.
  • Race. White people have a greater risk for type 1 diabetes than Black, Asian, or Hispanic people.

What causes type 1 diabetes?

The body makes insulin in beta cells, which are in a part of the pancreas called the islet (say "EYE-let") tissue. Type 1 diabetes starts because the body's immune system destroys those beta cells. So people who have type 1 diabetes can't make their own insulin.

What Is Type 1 Diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness), or you suddenly become very sleepy or confused. (You may have very low blood sugar.)
  • You have symptoms of high blood sugar, such as:
    • Blurred vision.
    • Trouble staying awake or being woken up.
    • Fast, deep breathing.
    • Breath that smells fruity.
    • Belly pain, not feeling hungry, and vomiting.
    • Feeling confused.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your blood sugar stays higher than the level your doctor has set for you.
  • You have symptoms of low blood sugar, such as:
    • Sweating.
    • Feeling nervous, shaky, and weak.
    • Extreme hunger and slight nausea.
    • Dizziness and headache.
    • Blurred vision.
    • Confusion.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You often have problems controlling your blood sugar.
  • You have symptoms of long-term diabetes problems, such as:
    • New vision changes.
    • New pain, numbness, or tingling in your hands or feet.
    • Skin problems.

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