Type 1 Diabetes

What Is Type 1 Diabetes

Diabetes is a disease that affects your body’s ability to regulate blood glucose (sugar) levels—there are various types of diabetes, which you can read more about in our Diabetes Overview, here we focus on type 1.  Previously referred to as juvenile diabetes because of its tendency to develop during childhood or adolescence, type 1 diabetes can actually develop at any age. In type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce enough insulin, a hormone that allows for the movement of sugar (food) into the body’s cells, resulting in dangerously high levels of glucose in the blood that the body cannot convert into energy. This is thought to be caused by the body’s immune cells mistakenly attacking and destroying the insulin-producing Islet cells of the pancreas, though research on the exact cause is still ongoing.

The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation reports that as many as three million American have type 1 diabetes. The number of children diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in the U.S. each year is more than 15,000. Of the people in the U.S. who are living with type 1 diabetes, 85% are adults and 15% are children. The prevalence of type 1 diabetes in children and teens between 2001 and 2009 increased by 23%.

What Causes Type 1 Diabetes

Lowered insulin levels are the underlying cause of all diabetes. Insulin is produced by the islet cells of the pancreas, which then circulate it to your body via the blood stream. In the presence of insulin, glucose (sugar) is able to transfer from the blood stream into the body cells, lowering the blood glucose level and providing the body’s cells with fuel for energy. In diabetic patients, there are several factors that can interfere with this process.

In type 1 diabetes, the body’s immune system attacks and destroys Islet cells, lowering the amount of insulin produced and circulated in the body and blocking the transfer of glucose from the bloodstream to bodily cells. The cause of this defect is still unknown, though researchers suspect that genetics and/or exposure to particular viruses may contribute.

Risk Factors For Type 1 Diabetes

The risk factors for the developing diabetes differ from type to type. Below are the possible risk factors for Type 1 diabetes:

  • Family history. Anyone with a parent or sibling with type 1 diabetes has a slightly increased risk of developing the condition. Research done at the University of Michigan and published in the June 2014 issue of the journal Cell found that a defect in Clec16a, a gene responsible for getting rid of old mitochondria (the powerhouses of cells), disrupts the ability of beta cells to produce insulin, resulting in type 1 diabetes.
  • Environmental factors. In 2006, an international team of scientists formed a research effort called The Environmental Determinants of Diabetes in the Young (TEDDY), which has centers in four countries and screens a total of 50,000 children a year. However, the reasons for the environmental triggers have still not been definitively established.
  • Viral exposure. Exposure to Epstein-Barr virus, Coxsackie virus, mumps virus, or cytomegalovirus may trigger the disease, as they are all connected to other autoimmune disorders.
  • Geography. The incidence of type 1 diabetes tends to increase as you travel away from the equator.  According to the Mayo Clinic, type 1 diabetes is more common in European countries than in African or South American countries. Finland has the highest rate of type 1 diabetes in the world. No scientific reason for this phenomenon has been established but some researchers theorize that there is a connection between type 1 diabetes and cold weather.
  • Consuming certain foods as an infant. Early introduction of both cow’s milk and cereal to a baby’s diet may increase the risk of type 1 diabetes. A Finnish review of the literature regarding infant feeding, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010 reported contradictory data about early introduction of cow’s milk proteins contained in infant formulas. Some surveys have indicated that early introduction of cow’s milk increases the risk of type 1 diabetes whereas others have shown no association at all. As for wheat, a study done at the University of Colorado and published in JAMA in 2003 found that children initially exposed to cereals between the ages 0 and 3 months had a higher risk of developing type 1 diabetes compared with those who were exposed during the fourth through sixth months. Both gluten-containing and non-gluten-containing cereals conferred the increased risk.
  • Having a mother younger than age 25 when she gave birth to you
  • Having a mother who had preeclampsia during pregnancy. Preeclampsia is a condition involving high blood pressure and protein in the urine that develop after the 20th week of pregnancy. The connection to diabetes is unknown.
  • Being born with jaundice
  • Having a respiratory infection just after birth



Diagnosing Type 1 Diabetes

Diabetes can be diagnosed by measuring blood glucose levels. Consistently high blood glucose levels, combined with symptoms of fatigue, excessive thirst, and frequent urination indicate the lack of insulin and/or insulin resistance associated with diabetes.

The following tests can be used to determine blood glucose levels:

  • Fasting blood glucose level test—Fasting blood glucose level tests measure a person’s blood glucose level after eight hours of not eating or drinking. According to the American Diabetes Association, normal fasting blood glucose is 70-100 mg/dL (3.9-5.6 mmol/L). Diabetes is typically diagnosed if blood glucose levels are higher than 126 mg/dL in two separate readings. Because of the fasting component of the test, fasting blood glucose level tests are usually scheduled in the morning, Because it is able to collect a blood glucose level without the variable of it being affected by a sugary meal or drink, fasting blood glucose levels are often used to make suspicions of diabetes definite. The test is usually scheduled in the morning to help ensure a complete fast beforehand.
  • Random (nonfasting) blood glucose level test – Nonfasting blood glucose level tests are taken right after eating. The normal blood glucose level after eating a meal is less than 180 mg/dL (10mmol/L) Blood glucose levels higher than 200 mg/dL can be signs of type 2 diabetes, however this must be confirmed with a fasting test. Results of random blood glucose level tests are largely dependent on what was last eaten and when.
  • Oral glucose tolerance test – During this test, an initial sample of blood is taken before the patient is asked to drink a solution containing glucose (typically 75 grams). Blood is then taken every 30 to 60 minutes after consuming the solution for up to three hours, recording the rate at which glucose is broken down by the body.  Diabetes is diagnosed if the glucose level is higher than 200 mg/dL.
  • Hemoglobin A1c test – The hemoglobin A1c test can be used to diagnose diabetes as well as gauge how well someone is managing their diabetes over the course of 2-3 months. A1c is a component of hemoglobin that glucose is able to stick to as it carried throughout the blood stream. With a higher percentage of A1c, the blood is able to retain more glucose. During the Hemoglobin A1c test, blood is drawn either at a lab or through a finger prick at a general physician’s office, and tested for the percentage of hemoglobin A1c. This shows the average level of blood sugar (glucose) over the previous three months, indicating whether or not you properly digest glucose, and, if you do have diabetes, how well you are controlling your condition.  Normal levels of A1c are around 4.5 – 6%, and individuals with levels of 6.5% and higher are typically diabetic. Levels of 7.5% and higher can be indicative of poorly controlled diabetes. Like many other of the diagnostic tests, it is best performed on two separate occasions to rule out any sugary meal or drink interference.
  • Ketone test – Your body breaks down fat and creates substances called ketones if you are not consuming sufficient carbohydrates to supply your body with glucose or if you don’t metabolize glucose correctly. Ketones can be toxic A ketone test can be done using a urine or blood sample. It is used when the following warning signs or conditions warrant the confirmation or ruling out of a complication called diabetic ketoacidosis:
    • When the blood sugar is higher than 240 mg/dL
    • During an illness such as pneumonia, heart attack, or stroke
    • When nausea or vomiting occur
    • During pregnancy


Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes

The process that destroys insulin-producing cells can take years and may not initially cause any symptoms. Researchers are still investigating what triggers this process, and why it is delayed for some and not for others. Regardless of when the process begins, once insulin production completely stops, type 1 diabetes usually appears suddenly and progresses quickly.

Symptoms of type 1 diabetes include:

  • Frequent urination (in children, a recurrence of bed-wetting after toilet training has been completed)
  • Unusual thirst, especially for sweet, cold drinks
  • Extreme hunger
  • Sudden, sometimes dramatic, weight loss
  • Weakness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Blurred vision or other changes in eyesight
  • Irritability
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Restlessness, apathy, and trouble at school (especially for children)
  • Diabetic coma, caused by missing a dose of insulin. The condition is rare but life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms and think you may have diabetes, talk to your doctor.



Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong disease for which there is no cure. However, careful monitoring of blood glucose levels and insulin injections can prevent or delay diabetes complications, and most patients with diabetes are able to lead normal, healthy lives. Complications can arise for even the most prudent of diabetes patients, so regular visits to the doctor are recommended. Thanks to advances in research and technology, the prognosis of patients with type 1 diabetes has improved considerably over the last 50 years.

Living With Type 1 Diabetes

When you maintain a healthy lifestyle, you are helping to control your diabetes.

Here are eight tips for living well with Type 1 diabetes:

  • Test your blood sugar. Monitoring blood sugar levels can help you understand your body’s needs at different times of the day. Depending on your levels, you may need to adjust your physical activity, meals, or insulin treatment.
  • Keep a food diary. It’s important to keep your body weight and blood sugar under control. Details such as what time you ate, how hungry you are before and after you eat, and what foods you choose, can help you learn to eat a healthy diet and understand how certain foods affect your blood glucose levels.
  • Quit smoking. Diabetes symptoms and complications are worse for smokers than nonsmokers. According to the Centers for Disease Control, smokers are 30–40% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than nonsmokers. The CDC also reports that people with diabetes who smoke are more likely than nonsmokers to have trouble with insulin dosing and with controlling their disease. In addition, smokers with diabetes have higher risks for serious complications, including heart and kidney disease, poor blood flow in the legs and feet that can lead to amputation, retinopathy (an eye disease that can cause blindness), peripheral neuropathy (damaged nerves to the arms and legs that causes numbness, pain, weakness, and poor coordination)
  • Limit alcohol. If you are a heavy drinker, it’s a good idea to cut down or even stop drinking, as alcohol contains a large amount of sugar that can disrupt blood glucose levels.
  • Maintain healthy teeth and gums. Diabetes may lead to higher levels of glucose in your saliva, which puts you at a higher risk for tooth decay and gum disease. To keep your teeth and gums healthy, brush at least three times a day, floss daily, and make regular visits to your dentist for examinations and cleanings.
  • Take good care of your feet. Some people with diabetes get tingling or numbness in their feet due to nerve damage, called neuropathy. That is why it is important to take good care of your feet. Wash your feet daily and wear clean, dry socks throughout the day. Always wear something on your feet to protect them from cuts or bruises, even inside the house. Check your feet every day to make sure there are no blisters, swelling, or other problems. Discuss any foot problems you may have with your doctor or podiatrist.
  • Exercise regularly and with care. Exercise is important to help maintain a healthy weight, regulate blood sugar levels, and boost your mood. However, diabetics might experience complications like increased susceptibility to infection and gangrene after an injury, or hypoglycemia (low blood glucose), so it’s important to take the proper precautions. Wear comfortable footwear and socks to prevent damage to the feet, drink plenty of water to keep your body hydrated, keep an eye on the temperature and amount of sun exposure, and carry your glucose pills and monitor with you in case of hypoglycemia during or after exercise.
  • Get your eyes examined every year. Prolonged and inadequate blood glucose control can damage and weaken the small blood vessels in the retina.



Screening for type 1 diabetes is not a regular practice, as the symptoms present themselves rapidly and the disease is usually diagnosed and treated soon after symptoms appear.



There are no proven ways to prevent type 1 diabetes, however with proper attention to your condition and blood glucose levels, you should be able to prevent the symptoms from interfering with daily life.


Medication And Treatment

The treatment for diabetes can vary from type to type. Below are the main medications for each type of diabetes:

Insulin is the primary medication used to treat type 1 diabetes. Up until the 1980s, medical grade insulin was made from purified pig or cow insulin. Today, medical grade insulin is made in laboratories using genetic recombinant technology to allow pancreatic cells in laboratory cultures to produce insulin.

There are four different types of insulin that can be taken. These are:

  • Rapid-acting (Humalog, Novolog, Apidra): begins to work after 15 minutes, peaks in 30 to 90 minutes, and has a duration of three to four hours.
  • Short-acting (Humulin R, Velosulin – for use with a pump): begins to work in 30 to 60 minutes, peaks in two to three hours, and has a duration of three to six hours.
  • Intermediate-acting (NPH): begins to work in 90 minutes to six hours, peaks in four to 14 hours, and has a duration of up to 24 hours.
  • Long-acting (Lantus, Levernir): begins to work in six to 14 hours and remains effective for 24 to 36 hours.

Insulin is administered by injection several times throughout the day so that it can avoid the digestive enzymes of the stomach, which would otherwise destroy it. Insulin injections come in the form of:

  • Syringe and vial. When insulin injections are done properly, most people find that they are relatively painless. Insulin is usually given as a subcutaneous injection, meaning that the needle is inserted into the fat layer between the skin and the muscle and deposits the insulin there.
  • Insulin pens look like an old-fashioned cartridge pen, except that it is disposable, has a needle, and holds a pre-filled cartridge of insulin. Pens are particularly useful for people who travel frequently, whose coordination is impaired, or those who have visual difficulties. They are also more useful for people who require very small doses of insulin.
  • Pump. This is a computerized device about the size of a beeper that is worn on the belt or in a pocket. It delivers a steady, measured dose of insulin through a flexible plastic tube called a cannula. With the aid of a small needle, the cannula is inserted through the skin, usually in the abdominal region, and is taped in place. In some products, the needle is removed and only a soft catheter remains in place. Pumps can deliver very precise insulin doses for different times of the day.

Symlin (pramlintide) is an injectable medication that is always used in combination with insulin and never alone. Symlin is a synthetic version of the body’s natural amylin, a peptide hormone co-secreted with insulin by the pancreas. Symlin is used to control high blood sugar that can occur after meals.

Diet is also key to keeping diabetes under control. A low carbohydrate diet is often recommended; by consuming fewer carbohydrates there will be less glucose in the bloodstream, which lowers the required level of insulin to control the body’s blood sugar.

Artificial pancreas are an upcoming treatment option that is currently in clinical trials. This will be an implanted device that simultaneously measures glucose and delivers appropriate insulin continuously. Clinical trials are promising and this new treatment could provide very effective glucose control and avoid many diabetic health complications.

Many people with diabetes use combinations of medications and insulin to better control and manage their condition. Your physician and the other members of your care team will help determine what is best for you.

Complementary and Alternative Treatment

There are several treatments that have been proven to be effective and safe complementary treatments. These include:

  • Acupuncture, which has been shown to offer relief from chronic pain. Acupuncture is sometimes used by people with neuropathy, which is a painful type of nerve damage that can be caused by diabetes.
  • Biofeedback, which can help people become more aware of and learn to deal with their body’s response to pain, emphasizes relaxation and stress-reduction techniques. Biofeedback can include guided imagery, a relaxation technique that some biofeedback professionals use. With guided imagery, a person thinks of mental images that would influence his or her overall state of being, such as ocean waves to feel peaceful, and controlling or curing diabetes to feel powerful and resilient.

According to The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there is no evidence that herbal supplements can help to control diabetes or its complications despite several studies that have attempted to prove their worth.

Herbal supplements that have not yet been proven to be effective are:

  • Aloe vera
  • Bitter melon
  • Fenugreek
  • Garlic
  • Gymnema sylvestre
  • Milk thistle
  • Nettle
  • Prickly pear cactus
  • Sweet potato
  • Various Chinese herbal medicines
  • Asian Ginseng
  • American Ginseng
  • Research on several of the above remedies is ongoing as the alternative medicine community searches for effective diabetes treatment methods.



Care Guide

Many people with diabetes live happy, healthy lives. In order to keep your symptoms in check and your blood glucose levels within range, follow these tips:

  • Monitor your insulin carefully. Don’t attempt to make adjustments without your doctor’s oversight.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Excess body fat causes cells to become resistant to insulin.
  • Eat small, frequent meals to keep blood sugar in a healthy range. Eating large meals can flood the bloodstream with glucose.
  • Keep refined starches and sugars to a minimum, choosing foods with a low glycemic index. Examples of “good” carbohydrates include sweet potatoes, winter squash and beans.
  • Eat fish several times a week, emphasizing wild, cold-water fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as Alaskan salmon and sardines. Or take molecularly distilled omega-3 supplements.
  • Increase your activity level. Aerobic activity improves insulin sensitivity in muscle cells, which allows more glucose to enter the cells. Aim for 30 minutes a day.
  • Keep up-to-date with the latest advances in the treatment of diabetes.
  • Connect with others who are also dealing with the disease, either with support groups in your community or online.
  • Check your blood glucose regularly
  • Take your medication as prescribed
  • Get help for depression. Depression and diabetes are linked. A recent study in the Annals of Family Medicine found that treating both conditions helped people stay on top of their diabetes medications and led to improved blood sugar levels, as well as reducing depression symptoms.
  • Inspect your feet daily. If you find a sore that isn’t healing, speak with your doctor immediately.
  • Identify yourself. Wear a medical alert bracelet or, at the very least, carry an identification card that tells people you have type 2 diabetes to help health professionals treat you in case of emergency. Check out our slideshow on amazing diabetes tattoos here.

When To Contact A Doctor

If you suspect that you have diabetes or you find that you are experiencing one or more of the symptoms of diabetes, you should talk to your doctor. He or she will be able to run the proper diagnostic tests and determine whether or not diabetes is causing your symptoms.

If you have already been diagnosed with diabetes, call your doctor immediately if:

  • You are sick and cannot control your blood sugar.
  • You have been vomiting or have had diarrhea for more than six hours.
  • You have a blood sugar level that stays higher or lower than the range your doctor has set for you.
  • You have symptoms of low blood sugar which include:
    •  Sweating
    • Nervousness
    • Shakiness and weakness
    • Extreme hunger and slight nausea
    • Dizziness and headache
    • Blurred vision
    • Confusion

Call 911 emergency services right away if you have symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) a life-threatening condition that develops when the body is not getting enough insulin. These include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Trouble staying awake or trouble being woken up
  • Fast, deep breathing
  • Breath that smells fruity
  • Belly pain, not feeling hungry, and vomiting
  • Feeling confused


Questions For Your Doctor

If you suspect you have diabetes, schedule a visit with your Primary Care Physician (PCP) for a complete physical to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms. Your doctor will then give you referrals to specialists. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), your diabetic care team should include a:

  • Primary doctor: Usually an internist or family medical doctor, who you’ll see for general checkups and when you get sick. Your primary care doctor should be experienced in treating people with diabetes and will likely head up your diabetes care team.
  • Endocrinologist: This is a doctor who has special training and experience in treating people with diabetes.
  • Dietician: A registered dietitian (RD) is trained in the field of nutrition. Your dietitian can help you figure out the best diet based on your needs and health goals.
  • Nurse educator: A nurse/diabetes educator or diabetes nurse practitioner is a registered nurse (RN) with special training and background in caring for and teaching people with diabetes. Nurse educators often help you learn the day-to-day aspects of diabetes self-care.
  • Eye Doctor: Diabetes can affect the blood vessels in the eyes. The eye doctor will be either an ophthalmologist (a doctor who can treat eye problems both medically and surgically) or an optometrist (someone who is trained to examine the eye for certain problems, such as how well the eye focuses). You should see your eye doctor at least once a year.
  • Podiatrist: Foot care is important because diabetes can cause nerve damage in the extremities. Podiatrists have a Doctor of Podiatric Medicine (DPM) degree from a college of podiatry. They have also done a residency (hospital training) in podiatry.
  • Dentist: People with diabetes are at somewhat greater and earlier risk of gum disease because excess blood sugar in your mouth makes it a welcoming place for bacteria; this can lead to infection. You should see your dentist every six months.

Visit the American Association of Diabetes Educators online for information on diabetes experts in your area

Questions For A Doctor

If you receive a diabetes diagnosis, you may want to ask your doctor the following questions:

  • What are other possible causes of my symptoms?
  • How often and when do I monitor my blood glucose?
  • What do I need to know about my insulin therapy?
  • What are the benefits of a shot vs. a pump?
  • How can I recognize if I have low blood sugar and what should I do?
  • How can I recognize if I have high blood sugar and what should I do?
  • What are the best foods for me to eat and what should I avoid?
  • How can I adjust my insulin and food intake for exercising?
  • How often should I visit my team of doctors?

If you suspect you may be at risk for diabetes, you may want to ask the following:

  • What can I do to lower my risk of diabetes?
  • What changes to my diet and exercise routine should I be making?
  • How often should I be tested for diabetes?
  • Should I take any medication to prevent the onset of diabetes?
  • Should I encourage my family to get tested for diabetes as well?



November is Diabetes Awareness Month. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA) its mission is to raise awareness of this growing disease. Nearly 30 million children and adults in the United States have diabetes.





To learn more about diabetes:


  • The American Diabetes Association (ADA) is a national organization for health professionals and consumers. You can get their monthly magazine Diabetes Forecast, books as well as, brochures, cookbooks and meal planning guides, and pamphlets.
  • Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International (JDRF) s the leading global organization funding type 1 diabetes (T1D) research. You can find information on local branches for networking and support.
  • National Diabetes Education Program. The program’s goal is to improve the treatment of people with diabetes, to promote early diagnosis, and to prevent the development of diabetes.

For a directory of doctors and experts:

  • American Association of Diabetes Educators (AADE) can supply the names of health professionals with a special interest in diabetes in your area including doctors, nurses, and dieticians, among other specialists.

Support groups for diabetes:

  • Type One Nation. This is a site for type 1 diabetes support groups and forums. You’ll need to sign in.
  • Diabetic Connect. This is an on-line support group and forum. You will need to sign in.

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