Understanding Diabetes in Children
You’ve undoubtedly heard that our body uses the food we eat as energy. That’s why it is so important to eat the right foods – so we have sustained energy and the nutrients needed to fuel our activities. But what about in a body that has diabetes and more specifically, diabetes in children?
Diabetes is a disease where the body doesn’t correctly process glucose, which is the blood’s primary sugar. There are two main types of diabetes. They are called type 1 and type 2.
Type 1 Diabetes
In a person with type 1 diabetes, their body cannot correctly use the sugars because the immune system mistakenly destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Insulin is responsible for taking the food we eat and turning it into sugars the body can use for energy. Without insulin, these sugars build up in the bloodstream and are then eliminated from the body through urination. Over time, this build-up can lead to problems throughout the body, including the blood vessels in the heart, kidneys, eyes, and nervous system.
Type 2 Diabetes
Until recently, type 2 diabetes was considered “adult onset” and not diagnosed in children. However, this has changed, and most experts believe the primary culprit is childhood obesity. In type 2 diabetes, insulin production remains the issue; however, either the body doesn’t produce enough insulin, or their body resists the effects of insulin (insulin resistance). Over time, the body is unable to produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels normal. The easiest way to reverse the effects of type 2 diabetes is by losing weight and eating a healthy diet.
Diabetes Symptoms in Children
It is incredibly important for parents to understand the symptoms of diabetes in children. For type 1, diagnosis can happen at any age; however, peaks tend to occur between the ages of 5-6 and 11-13. Patients with type 1 diabetes will often show symptoms abruptly after an infection that triggers the immune system. These patients often appear very sick with symptoms such as abdominal pain, vomiting, headaches, and signs of severe dehydration. This can sometimes manifest with increased thirst and urination, but this is not always the case. As the body eliminates the build-up of sugars in urine, it also strips the body of water, which can lead to dehydration. Type 1 diabetes can also have other comorbidities like thyroid disease or other autoimmune disease.
Children with type 2 diabetes often manifest symptoms more slowly although similar in presentation. These children can also show warning signs prior to full development of diabetes such as darkening skin around the neck that shows insulin resistance may be starting.
If you suspect your child may have diabetes, they must be seen by their pediatrician as soon as possible. In addition to a physical exam, their provider will run either a fasting blood sugar test or a random glucose test. For more information about pediatric diabetes, check out the KidsHealth page here.