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Childhood Diabetes: What Parents Need To Know

November 08, 2023

Like adults, children can experience two types of diabetes, and unfortunately they are becoming more common. Type 1 diabetes -- which has nothing to do with your child’s diet, sugar consumption or level of activity -- is by far more prevalent than Type 2 in children.

Types of Childhood Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the pancreas stops making insulin. Insulin is a hormone that is necessary for your child’s body to process glucose (also known as sugar) as fuel. When glucose cannot be used, it builds up in the blood and can cause organ damage, blindness and more.

Genetics play a role in Type 1 diabetes, but something in the environment triggers the autoimmune response. If diagnosed early enough with autoantibodies studies, immunotherapy is now available to delay the onset.  Otherwise, the treatment is insulin therapy.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when your child’s body cannot use insulin effectively, which leads to insulin resistance. This also results in high blood glucose and can cause the same life-threatening results in your child’s body.

The cause of Type 2 diabetes usually is related to genetics, childhood obesity, an unhealthy diet and a lack of physical activity. With Type 2 diabetes, a healthy diet, adequate exercise and weight loss can improve the condition. However, if the blood glucose gets very high, oral hypoglycemic pills and insulin are given to the child.

Symptoms of Childhood Diabetes

A simple blood test can measure your child’s blood glucose level and help the doctor diagnose both types of diabetes. Your child should be tested if you observe these symptoms:

  • Increased thirst
  • Increased hunger
  • Increased urination, especially at night
  • Tiredness
  • Weight loss
  • Darkened areas of skin, especially around the neck or in the armpits

Don’t be surprised if your child is nonsymptomatic, and the doctor screens for Type 1 diabetes at a wellness visit. The blood test is so accurate it can predict with nearly 100 percent accuracy the lifetime risk of developing high blood glucose and requiring insulin.

Living with Childhood Diabetes

Children with diabetes must closely monitor their blood glucose with either finger-stick testing or by wearing a continuous glucose monitor.

Food, activity and insulin all affect blood glucose levels. You and your child must keep track of carbohydrates to match insulin dosing.  Giving too little insulin or eating too much results in high blood glucose. On the other hand, giving too much insulin or eating too little results in low blood glucose. Your child’s activity affects blood glucose, too.

Recently, the use of automated insulin delivery systems has helped to manage diabetes. These systems allow children to wear an insulin pump that communicates with a continuous glucose monitor and delivers the medication when needed. This setup still requires work to make sure the devices are in sync, but it offers a better quality of life.

Complications of Childhood Diabetes

If your child’s diabetes is not controlled, the short-term complication can be diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). DKA develops when your child’s body doesn’t have enough insulin to allow blood sugar into the cells for use as energy. Instead, your child’s liver breaks down fat for fuel, a process that produces acids called ketones. When too many ketones are produced too fast, they can build up to dangerous levels in the body. Long-term complications include serious problems with the kidneys, eyes, nerves, skin, heart and blood vessels. These typically occur in adulthood but are affected by how diabetes is managed during childhood.

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