Health Information

Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus in Children

What is type 1 diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition in which the body can't make enough insulin, or can't use insulin normally. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder. The body's immune system damages the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. Insulin is a hormone. It helps sugar (glucose) in the blood get into cells of the body to be used as fuel. When glucose can’t enter the cells, it builds up in the blood. This is called high blood sugar (hyperglycemia). High blood sugar can cause problems all over the body. It can damage blood vessels and nerves. It can harm the eyes, kidneys, and heart. It can also cause symptoms such as tiredness.

Type 1 diabetes mellitus is a long-term (chronic) condition. It may start at any age. Only 5% of people with diabetes have type 1. Insulin from the pancreas must be replaced with insulin injections or an insulin pump.

There are two forms of type 1 diabetes:

  • Immune-mediated diabetes. This is an autoimmune disorder in which the body's immune system damages the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. This is the most common kind of type 1 diabetes.
  • Idiopathic type 1. This refers to rare forms of the disease with no known cause.

What causes type 1 diabetes?

The cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown. Researchers think some people inherit a gene than can cause type 1 diabetes if a trigger such as a virus occurs.

Who is at risk for type 1 diabetes?

A child is more at risk for type 1 diabetes if he or she has any of these risk factors:

  • A family member with the condition
  • Caucasian race
  • Being from Finland or Sardinia
  • Is age 4 to 6, or 10 to 14

What are the symptoms of type 1 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes often appears suddenly. In children, type 1 diabetes symptoms may be like flu symptoms. Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each child. They can include:

  • High levels of glucose in the blood and urine when tested
  • Unusual thirst
  • Dehydration
  • Frequent urination (a baby may need more diaper changes, or a toilet-trained child may start wetting his or her pants)
  • Extreme hunger but weight loss
  • Loss of appetite in younger children
  • Blurred vision
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Belly (abdominal) pain
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Irritability and mood changes
  • Serious diaper rash that does get better with treatment 
  • Fruity breath and fast breathing
  • Yeast infection in girls

The symptoms of type 1 diabetes can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is type 1 diabetes diagnosed?

The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. He or she may also ask about your family’s health history. He or she will give your child a physical exam. Your child may also have blood tests, such as:                                                                                                                                                                 

  • Fasting plasma glucose. The blood is tested after a period of not eating.
  • Random plasma glucose. The blood is tested when there are symptoms of increased thirst, urination, and hunger.

How is type 1 diabetes treated?

Children with type 1 diabetes must have daily injections of insulin to keep the blood glucose level within normal ranges. Insulin is given either by injection or insulin pump. Your child’s healthcare provider will show you how to give your child insulin with either method.

Treatment will also include:

  • Eating the right foods to manage blood glucose levels. This includes timing meals and counting carbohydrates.
  • Exercise, to lower blood sugar
  • Regular blood testing to check blood-glucose  levels
  • Regular urine testing to check ketone levels

What are possible complications of type 1 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes can cause:

  • Ketoacidosis (diabetic coma). This is a loss of consciousness because of untreated or undertreated diabetes.
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). This is also sometimes called an insulin reaction. This occurs when blood glucose drops too low. 

Your child’s healthcare provider will tell you how to avoid these problems.

Over time, high blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels. Balancing insulin, diet, and activity can help keep blood sugar levels in the target range and help prevent complications such as:

  • Eye problems
  • Kidney disease
  • Nerve damage
  • Tooth and gum problems
  • Skin and foot problems
  • Heart and blood vessel disease

Living with type 1 diabetes

A type 1 diabetes diagnosis can be stressful for a child and his or her family. A younger child may not understand all the life changes, such as glucose monitoring and insulin injections. A child may feel:                                                                                                                                                          

  • As if he or she is being punished
  • Guilty
  • Fearful of death
  • Angry toward the parent

Parents can help their child by treating him or her as a normal child with diabetes management as just one aspect of their daily life.

Many areas have diabetes camps, support groups, and other organizations for children with type 1 diabetes and their families. Talk with your child’s healthcare provider for more information.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Call your child's healthcare team if you need help. Also call the healthcare team if your child:

  • Has new symptoms
  • Often has high blood glucose levels
  • Often has hypoglycemia

Key points about type 1 diabetes

  • Type 1 diabetes mellitus is a long-term (chronic) condition. It may start at any age. Only 5% of people with diabetes have type 1.
  • Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which blood glucose levels are abnormally high.
  • It is most frequently caused by an autoimmune disorder in which the body's immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.
  • Children with type 1 diabetes must have daily injections of insulin to keep the blood glucose level within normal ranges.
  • Without insulin, blood glucose levels continue to rise and death will occur.
  • With the administration of insulin, and other management activities, children with type 1 diabetes can lead active, healthy lives.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s health care provider:
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.