Type 1 Diabetes: What It Is, Causes, Symptoms & Treatment


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Medically Reviewed By:
Mark Arredondo, M.D.

About 1.9 million people in the United States have type 1 diabetes, including an estimated 244,000 kids and teens, according to the American Diabetes Association. And though type 1 diabetes is less common than the type 2 variety, 1.4 million Americans are diagnosed with diabetes every year.

If you or someone you love has type 1 diabetes, understanding its causes, symptoms and treatment is imperative to living a well-balanced and healthy life.

What is type 1 diabetes?

“There are two primary types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2," Dr. Rita Kalyani of Johns Hopkins Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism in Baltimore, said in a Hopkins article. "In type 1 diabetes, individuals cannot produce insulin, a crucial hormone responsible for metabolizing glucose.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that for those with type 1 diabetes, the pancreas either produces insufficient insulin or none at all. Yet, insulin plays a crucial role in ushering blood sugar into the body's cells, providing them with the necessary energy.

The absence of sufficient insulin causes blood sugar to accumulate in the bloodstream, giving rise to the various symptoms and complications associated with diabetes.

Type 1 versus type 2 diabetes: What’s the difference?

“A person with type 1 diabetes does not produce insulin in their body and must take insulin every day to keep their blood glucose at healthy levels. A person with type 2 diabetes can produce insulin, however, they may not make enough, or they may experience insulin resistance, causing their blood glucose to rise to higher-than-normal levels," said Patricia Abernathy, certified diabetes care and education specialist at Saint Anthony Hospital in Chicago.

Is type 1 diabetes genetic?

The American Diabetes Association notes that in most cases of type 1 diabetes, people "inherit some risk factors from their parents,” Abernathy said.

In most people with genetic risk factors, the disease does not develop, according to the nonprofit JDRF (formerly the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation). It is believed, however, that kids whose parents have type 1 diabetes have a greater risk of developing type 1 than the general population -- on average, this risk is about 15 times that of someone with a relative who has the disease.

What causes type 1 diabetes?

Certain factors, which may be more prevalent in white populations, may contribute to the higher rate of type 1 diabetes among this group, research from the American Diabetes Association suggests.

One area of interest for researchers is identifying environmental triggers. Type 1 diabetes develops more often in winter and is more common in cold regions. Viruses may also act as potential triggers. Early dietary factors, such as breastfeeding and the timing of solid food introduction, could also play a role.

The progression of type 1 diabetes in individuals often spans several years. Studies that followed relatives of folks with type 1 diabetes have shown that many who later developed the condition had specific autoantibodies in their blood for years before diagnosis. These proteins usually combat infections but can also attack the body's own tissues.

Type 1 diabetes symptoms

The onset of type 1 diabetes symptoms can be abrupt, according to the Mayo Clinic, and it may include:

  • Increased thirst beyond the norm

  • Frequent urination

  • Bed-wetting in children who previously had dry nights

  • Intense hunger

  • Unintended weight loss

  • Mood changes, leading to irritability

  • Persistent feelings of fatigue and weakness

  • Blurry vision

Type 1 diabetes treatment

For individuals with type 1 diabetes, daily insulin shots (or an insulin pump) are essential for managing blood sugar levels and providing the body with energy, according to the CDC. Insulin cannot be taken as a pill by type 1 diabetics since stomach acid breaks it down before sufficient amounts can enter the bloodstream.

Your health care provider will work with you to determine the most suitable type and dose of insulin for your needs.

Regular blood sugar checks are also crucial in your diabetes management. Patients with type 1 diabetes must work with their doctor to establish the recommended frequency for these checks and their target blood sugar levels.

Living with type 1 diabetes

If you have just been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, it is natural to wonder what it will be like to live with the disease. A common question patients often ask their doctor pertains to type 1 diabetes life expectancy. The fact is that for those with diabetes type 1, insulin is indispensable for sustaining life. So, it will be necessary for daily administration through injections or an insulin pump.

Additionally, monitoring your blood sugar levels regularly throughout the day is essential to staying within your target range as consistently as possible. Incorporating lifestyle behaviors that promote longevity and overall health with diabetes include:

  • Adopting a nutritious, well-balanced diet

  • Engaging in regular physical activity

  • Seeking regular health care checkups and support from professionals

  • Abstaining from smoking

  • Effectively managing stress levels

  • Nurturing mental and emotional well-being

And as far as life expectancy, a U.S. newborn in 2021 can expect to live about 76 years on average, according to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics. A 2020 article in the journal PLOS ONE indicates that patients with type 1 diabetes are expected to have an average life expectancy of 70.96 years.

Following the insulin regimen outlined by their physician and recommended lifestyle behaviors can help patients manage their type 1 diabetes and live long, productive lives.

SOURCE: Patricia Abernathy, MS, MSW, RDN, LDN, LSW, certified diabetes care and education specialist, Saint Anthony Hospital, Chicago

What This Means For You

Know the causes, symptoms and treatment of type 1 diabetes.

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