Type 1 diabetes, once known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes, is a chronic condition. In this condition, the pancreas makes little or no insulin. Insulin is a hormone the body uses to allow sugar (glucose) to enter cells to produce energy.
Different factors, such as genetics and some viruses, may cause type 1 diabetes. Although type 1 diabetes usually appears during childhood or adolescence, it can develop in adults.
Even after a lot of research, type 1 diabetes has no cure. Treatment is directed toward managing the amount of sugar in the blood using insulin, diet and lifestyle to prevent complications.
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Type 1 diabetes symptoms can appear suddenly and may include:
- Feeling more thirsty than usual
- Urinating a lot
- Bed-wetting in children who have never wet the bed during the night
- Feeling very hungry
- Losing weight without trying
- Feeling irritable or having other mood changes
- Feeling tired and weak
- Having blurry vision
When to see a doctor
Talk to your health care provider if you notice any of the above symptoms in you or your child.
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The exact cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown. Usually, the body's own immune system — which normally fights harmful bacteria and viruses — destroys the insulin-producing (islet) cells in the pancreas. Other possible causes include:
- Exposure to viruses and other environmental factors
The role of insulin
Once a large number of islet cells are destroyed, the body will produce little or no insulin. Insulin is a hormone that comes from a gland behind and below the stomach (pancreas).
- The pancreas puts insulin into the bloodstream.
- Insulin travels through the body, allowing sugar to enter the cells.
- Insulin lowers the amount of sugar in the bloodstream.
- As the blood sugar level drops, the pancreas puts less insulin into the bloodstream.
The role of glucose
Glucose — a sugar — is a main source of energy for the cells that make up muscles and other tissues.
- Glucose comes from two major sources: food and the liver.
- Sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream, where it enters cells with the help of insulin.
- The liver stores glucose in the form of glycogen.
- When glucose levels are low, such as when you haven't eaten in a while, the liver breaks down the stored glycogen into glucose. This keeps glucose levels within a typical range.
In type 1 diabetes, there's no insulin to let glucose into the cells. Because of this, sugar builds up in the bloodstream. This can cause life-threatening complications.
Some factors that can raise your risk for type 1 diabetes include:
- Family history. Anyone with a parent or sibling with type 1 diabetes has a slightly higher risk of developing the condition.
- Genetics. Having certain genes increases the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
- Geography. The number of people who have type 1 diabetes tends to be higher as you travel away from the equator.
- Age. Type 1 diabetes can appear at any age, but it appears at two noticeable peaks. The first peak occurs in children between 4 and 7 years old. The second is in children between 10 and 14 years old.
Over time, type 1 diabetes complications can affect major organs in the body. These organs include the heart, blood vessels, nerves, eyes and kidneys. Having a normal blood sugar level can lower the risk of many complications.
Diabetes complications can lead to disabilities or even threaten your life.
- Heart and blood vessel disease. Diabetes increases the risk of some problems with the heart and blood vessels. These include coronary artery disease with chest pain (angina), heart attack, stroke, narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and high blood pressure.
Nerve damage (neuropathy). Too much sugar in the blood can injure the walls of the tiny blood vessels (capillaries) that feed the nerves. This is especially true in the legs. This can cause tingling, numbness, burning or pain. This usually begins at the tips of the toes or fingers and spreads upward. Poorly controlled blood sugar could cause you to lose all sense of feeling in the affected limbs over time.
Damage to the nerves that affect the digestive system can cause problems with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation. For men, erectile dysfunction may be an issue.
- Kidney damage (nephropathy). The kidneys have millions of tiny blood vessels that keep waste from entering the blood. Diabetes can damage this system. Severe damage can lead to kidney failure or end-stage kidney disease that can't be reversed. End-stage kidney disease needs to be treated with mechanical filtering of the kidneys (dialysis) or a kidney transplant.
- Eye damage. Diabetes can damage the blood vessels in the retina (part of the eye that senses light) (diabetic retinopathy). This could cause blindness. Diabetes also increases the risk of other serious vision conditions, such as cataracts and glaucoma.
- Foot damage. Nerve damage in the feet or poor blood flow to the feet increases the risk of some foot complications. Left untreated, cuts and blisters can become serious infections. These infections may need to be treated with toe, foot or leg removal (amputation).
- Skin and mouth conditions. Diabetes may leave you more prone to infections of the skin and mouth. These include bacterial and fungal infections. Gum disease and dry mouth also are more likely.
- Pregnancy complications. High blood sugar levels can be dangerous for both the parent and the baby. The risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and birth defects increases when diabetes isn't well-controlled. For the parent, diabetes increases the risk of diabetic ketoacidosis, diabetic eye problems (retinopathy), pregnancy-induced high blood pressure and preeclampsia.
There's no known way to prevent type 1 diabetes. But researchers are working on preventing the disease or further damage of the islet cells in people who are newly diagnosed.
Ask your provider if you might be eligible for one of these clinical trials. It is important to carefully weigh the risks and benefits of any treatment available in a trial.
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