Insulin tells the body's cells to absorb the sugar known as glucose from the blood and to use it as fuel. Without it, cells starve for want of energy while blood sugar levels rise out of control.
How is type 1 diabetes different than type 2? Type 2 diabetes is a much more common type of the disease in which the cells of the body stop responding normally to the effects of insulin or the body produces some, but not enough, insulin.
How many people have diabetes? The American Diabetes Association (ADA) estimates that 20.8 million Americans, or about 7% of the population, have diabetes, but the vast majority of these cases (90-95%) are of type 2 diabetes. Researchers estimate that more than 1 million Americans – and perhaps as many as 3 million – have type 1 diabetes, many of them children and young adults.
Having diabetes increases the risk of several serious diseases and other complications. While there is no cure for Type 1 diabetes, the condition can be managed through the use of insulin shots and dietary control and people with diabetes can live full, healthy lives.
Someone can have diabetes without knowing it because the symptoms aren't always obvious and they may develop gradually over time. Some people may have no symptoms at all, while for others the initial symptoms may range from very mild to life-threatening conditions such as diabetic ketoacidosis.
One major difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes: Type 1 is most often diagnosed in children, teenagers, or young adults, while type 2 occurs most frequently in middle aged and older adults.
Symptoms that may occur with type 1 diabetes include:
Type 1 diabetes occurs when specialized cells called beta cells found in the pancreas -- an organ located behind the stomach -- are destroyed. Without them, the body is incapable of producing any insulin.
When someone without diabetes eats a meal, the nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream by the digestive tract. This causes a rise in blood sugar which signals the beta cells of the pancreas to release insulin. Insulin travels in the bloodstream and signals the cells of the body to take up sugar from the blood and use it as their primary source of energy. It also signals certain cells to store excess sugar for later use.
While it is clear that the loss of the pancreatic beta cells is the cause of type 1 diabetes, the reason these cells die is less clear. Researchers believe that the body's immune system mistakenly attacks the beta cells leading to their demise. Approximately 85 percent of patients have antibodies in their blood that are directed against islet cells.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, a type of disease that occurs when the immune system attacks normal body cells. The reason that the immune system goes awry in type 1 diabetes is unknown, as it is with other types of autoimmune diseases. Researchers believe genetics may play an important role in the development of type 1 diabetes. Environmental conditions such as exposure to certain viruses may also play a role.
Since the exact cause of type 1 diabetes in unknown, it is difficult to determine who is at risk for developing the disease. One factor that seems to increase your risk of type1 diabetes is having a close relative with the disease.
Other known risk factors include:
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of type 1 diabetes, see the doctor to get checked out. The tests to diagnose diabetes are relatively simple and if you do have the disease, it is important to find out before serious complications develop.
When you visit the doctor: She will perform a standard physical exam and take your personal and family medical history. In addition, the doctor will perform simple tests to help diagnose type 1 diabetes.
Treating type 1 diabetes involves monitoring your blood sugar and taking insulin shots. It also involves lifestyle changes, including increasing your activity level, eating right, and maintaining a healthy weight. Talking with your doctor or dietitian about exercises you can do and foods you can eat can help you improve your overall health.
If you are diabetic: The goal of treatment is to keep your blood sugar level within normal limits, ideally between 70 -140 mg/dL. Controlling your blood sugar not only prevents short term complications such as ketoacidosis, it can also reduce the risk of diabetes-related heart complications by 50 percent.
All about blood sugar: Your doctor can help you determine how often you should check and record your blood sugar; usually, it is several times each day. Blood sugar monitors come in many varieties, but all of them require a small amount of your blood to estimate your blood sugar level. Recent advances in technology have made blood sugar determination far less painful and time consuming, allowing diabetics to monitor their levels as often as is necessary.
Insulin is commonly self-administered by a shot into the abdomen, upper arms, thighs or hips. Another method of administration is an insulin pump which is implanted under the skin and continuously releases insulin into the blood.
Untreated diabetes can lead to some serious health complications. If you have diabetes, the best way to avoid diabetes complications is to manage your blood sugar well.
Some short-term complications of diabetes include:
Consult your doctor if you're concerned that you might have diabetes, especially if you notice any of the symptoms of type 1 diabetes such as increased thirst, frequent urination, extreme hunger, weight loss, fatigue, or blurred vision.
If you have already been diagnosed with diabetes, contact a health professional right away if you experience any symptoms of diabetes complications. See the doctor regularly for checkups and have regular foot and eye exams to identify problems with your feet or vision early, before they become serious.
These tests may include:
Your doctor may do other tests to distinguish between type 1 and type 2 diabetes, which is an important consideration in determining how best to treat the condition. A test for your blood insulin level can help determine that you have type 1 diabetes if it shows that you have little or no ability to produce insulin. Another test is a blood test for immune system molecules called antibodies directed against the beta cells of the pancreas, which are found only in people with type 1 diabetes.
Your doctor may also recommend a glycated hemoglobin (A1C) test, which shows your average blood sugar level over the past two to three months. It works by measuring the percentage of blood sugar attached to hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells. The higher your blood sugar levels, the more hemoglobin you’ll have with sugar attached. Generally, a target A1C result is 7 percent or less.