If your child has been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, you probably feel a bit overwhelmed. You might be asking yourself: how did this happen, what comes next, how do I best take care of my child?
First, there is nothing you or your child could have done to prevent type 1 diabetes, but there are lots of things you can do to help your child manage their diabetes and live an active and healthy life.
Let’s review some basic information about type 1 diabetes in children.
What is Diabetes
Diabetes mellitus is the scientific name for diabetes and refers to a group of diseases that are related to how the body uses glucose.
When you eat, your body processes food into glucose (sugar) and other nutrients that are absorbed from your intestine into your bloodstream. Glucose is the main energy source for your body, but it needs help getting into your cells.
Beta cells in your pancreas monitor your blood sugar, and when blood sugar rises after you eat, your beta cells release insulin. Insulin acts like a key, allowing your cells to use glucose for energy. If your pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin to regulate the amount of glucose in your blood, the extra glucose builds up, and causes health problems.
Type 1 diabetes occurs when your body is no longer able to produce insulin, most often because an autoimmune disorder has caused the body to attack and destroy the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. No one knows why this happens, but scientists think it is caused by a combination of genetics and environmental factors.
Type 1 diabetes affects about one in 400 children, adolescents, and young adults under the age of 20. Type 1 diabetes used to be called juvenile diabetes because it is most often diagnosed at a young age, but since this type of diabetes can happen at any age and does not go away, the term has become outdated and abandoned.
Diabetes is not curable, but it can be effectively managed through treatment with insulin every day. This diagnosis can seem like a lot at first, especially if it is your child who has been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Suddenly, your child (and you) must learn to give injections, manage diet and exercise, and monitor blood sugar throughout the day. With proper treatment, people (including children) living with type 1 diabetes can live healthy, productive lives.
Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes in Children
The symptoms for type 1 diabetes in children are similar to symptoms of type 1 diabetes in adults, but they aren’t always obvious to someone who is not familiar with diabetes. Symptoms of type 1 diabetes in children usually develop quickly with the most common symptoms being frequent urination, excessive thirst, and excessive hunger/fatigue.
Frequent urination. Your kidneys respond to high levels of blood glucose by trying to filter out the excess glucose, which causes you to have to urinate more often. For younger children, you might notice more wet diapers than normal, or bed-wetting in a child who has previously been potty trained.
Excessive thirst. An imbalanced part of the body can cause imbalances in other areas. Excessive thirst happens when your kidneys are working overtime to filter out excess sugar from your blood. Children may be asking for drinks more often than normal.
Excessive hunger/fatigue. Like excessive urination and excessive thirst, excessive hunger and fatigue are closely related. Adults and children living with type 1 diabetes have difficulty converting glucose from food into energy. Lack of available nutrients often makes you hungry no matter how much you eat.
Feeling tired or fatigued goes hand-in-hand with feeling hungry. If your body is not getting enough nutrients from food, you may feel extremely tired, even if you are getting a good night’s sleep. Your child may lose weight or fail to gain weight as they grow, even as their appetite increases.
You also may notice behavior changes, irritability, or fruity smelling breath in a child who has type 1 diabetes. Serious diaper rash that doesn’t get better with treatment, as well as nausea and vomiting are symptoms of many illnesses, but if these symptoms are combined with any of the above, it is best to contact your pediatrician. Yeast infections in girls who have not reached puberty also may be a sign of type 1 diabetes.
As with any other health concern, if you are worried that your child may have diabetes, see your child’s doctor for an evaluation. Untreated diabetes causes complications like heart disease, nerve, kidney, and eye damage, and even death if not treated. If your child has one or more of the symptoms noted above, your health care provider may order a blood test for high glucose levels.
The blood test will tell you if your child has normal levels of glucose in their blood. If the blood test shows higher than normal levels of glucose, your healthcare provider will likely order other blood tests to find out if your child has type 1 or type 2 diabetes. This is important because the treatment for type 1 diabetes can be different from type 2 diabetes. If tests confirm that your child has type 1 diabetes, you will probably be referred to a pediatric endocrinologist – a doctor who specializes in diseases of the endocrine system like diabetes and growth disorders.
Type 1 Diabetes Treatment
The first question you probably have about treatment is, where do I start?
If your child has type 1 diabetes, you will learn how to manage your child’s blood sugar levels. Eventually, your child will learn to do this with your supervision, and can do it alone as they grow into an adult.
It might sound intimidating, but there are resources to help you. Your healthcare providers, articles like this one, government and organizational resources, and even companies like Diathrive who sell diabetes supplies and equipment, are here to help you. Whatever question you have, there will be an answer from your new community of supporters.
The basic steps for treatment include (1) regularly checking blood sugar levels, (2) taking insulin as needed, (3) eating a healthy diet, (4) getting regular physical activity, and (5) seeing your child’s health care provider on a regular basis.
Type 1 diabetes is treated by giving your body back its missing hormone, insulin. To do that, you need diabetes equipment and supplies every day since managing diabetes is a daily activity.
The goal is to keep blood sugar levels within a normal range as much as possible. To do this, blood sugar levels are checked several times a day with a finger stick to obtain a small amount of blood, and insulin can be taken proactively based on anticipation of eating a meal. Your health care provider will guide you on when to test blood sugar. The blood sample is placed on a thin strip that is read by a blood glucose meter. Based on the reading from the meter, insulin is given by injection with a small syringe and a very thin, short needle that makes the injection almost painless.
Because healthy eating and regular exercise also help manage blood sugar, you can help your child learn how to live a healthy lifestyle through good diet and exercise, which is good for them whether or not they have a health concern. Schedule regular visits with your child’s health care provider and keep records of blood glucose levels so that your child’s health care provider can review them and evaluate the effectiveness of their treatment plan.
Two situations to also be aware of are:
Ketoacidosis. Ketoacidosis happens when blood sugar levels are very high, and the body doesn’t have enough insulin and starts making energy from fat. Ketones are an acid created when the body burns fat instead of glucose for fuel. This is a serious condition that requires immediate intervention to get glucose levels back to a normal level.
Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Hypoglycemia happens when blood sugar gets too low. This also is a serious condition that requires immediate intervention. Treatment includes eating or drinking fast-acting sugar. Consult a doctor to determine the amount and type of low blood sugar treatments that will resolve the problem quickly and without causing blood sugar to rollercoaster too high.
It's best to contact your healthcare provider if you or your child notice new symptoms, or often still have high or low blood glucose levels under their current treatment plan.
Other Ways Parents Can Help
Living with diabetes is a challenge, and often more of a challenge for young people. Children and young adults may not fully understand what is happening. They can be scared, angry, confused, or uncooperative. They may feel different from their friends, feel as if they are being punished, fear death, or have other difficult feelings.
Parents can help by treating your child’s diabetes care as just one aspect of their life -- be careful not to overwhelm them with it or make them feel like it’s the one trait that defines them. There also are support groups, camps, and other organizations for children with diabetes. Your health care provider can often offer local suggestions for support, too.
Living with diabetes is an adjustment for parents and the child who is diagnosed. There is a lot of information to absorb, and lots of new information and management strategies to learn. You and your child have the support of a large community to help you manage diabetes for an active and healthy life, so take a breath and know that there’s so many resources out there to help guide you through, including right here at Diathrive.