Skip to main content
Dartmouth-Hitchcock logo
Summer Flowers In This Section

Type 1 Diabetes

Alternative names: Juvenile Diabetes, Child-Onset Diabetes, Juvenile-Onset Diabetes, Diabetes Mellitus

What is type 1 diabetes?

In type 1 diabetes, the body's own immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. The result is an extreme lack of or absence of insulin, a hormone that is necessary for life, because it allows the body to be able to use sugar. Sugar is the basic fuel for the cells in the body, and insulin takes the sugar from the blood into the cells.

What are the signs of type 1 diabetes?

Symptoms of type 1 diabetes can develop quickly, over days or weeks. They may include:

  • Being unusually thirsty, and having a dry mouth
  • Urinating more often than normal
  • Feeling extremely tired and without energy
  • Feeling hungry all of the time
  • Losing weight despite an increased appetite
  • Having wounds that take a long time to heal
  • Having blurred vision

If a person with type 1 diabetes is not diagnosed and treated, he or she can fall into a dangerous diabetic coma (diabetic ketoacidosis).

What causes type 1 diabetes?

In type 1 diabetes, the body's immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that make the hormone, insulin. Normally, insulin moves sugar (glucose) from the bloodstream into the rest of the body, where the sugar is used as fuel. In a diabetic, that sugar builds up in the bloodstream instead of being used by the body. Without insulin, a diabetic may feel hungry and listless, even if he or she just ate.

Doctors do not know what causes the body's immune system to attack the cells in the pancreas. In some cases, a person may develop type 1 diabetes after being exposed to an "environmental trigger," such as an unidentified virus.

Type 1 diabetes is most often diagnosed in people younger than 30.

How does my doctor tell if I have type 1 diabetes?

In order to diagnose type 1 diabetes, your doctor will check the sugar, or glucose, levels in your blood. The fasting plasma glucose test is the most common test, and is done after you have not eaten for at least eight hours. Your doctor may also check the sugar levels in your urine, or do other tests to check your insulin or protein levels.

How is type 1 diabetes treated?

A person who has type 1 diabetes must take insulin every day, either by injection, or from an insulin pump. Keeping track of blood sugar, having a regular exercise program, and paying special attention to diet are other important ways to control type 1 diabetes.

People with type 1 diabetes can keep track of their blood sugar levels by regularly testing small drops of blood. A good diet can help maintain blood sugar at a manageable level. Exercise lowers blood sugar, and also will help a diabetic lose weight.

When a person who has type 1 diabetes uses too much insulin, exercises too much, or has not eaten enough food, he or she may feel the symptoms of low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia. These symptoms may include weakness, shaking, sweating, headache, nervousness, and hunger. The diabetic must eat sugary food right away, such as fruit juice, several teaspoons of sugar, a cup of skim milk, or regular soda. A diabetic must also learn how to recognize and treat high blood sugar (hyperglycemia).

A person with type 1 diabetes showing high blood sugar should also check for a condition called ketoacidosis by doing a urine test at home. Ketoacidosis is caused by the body breaking down fat instead of sugar for energy. This is a serious condition that can lead to a coma and even death if untreated.

Contact Us