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Type 1 Diabetes: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

What is type 1 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is a chronic disease. In type 1 diabetes cells in the pancreas that make insulin are destroyed, and the body is unable to make insulin.  

Insulin is a hormone that helps your body’s cells use a natural sugar called glucose for energy. Your body obtains glucose from the food you eat. Insulin allows the glucose to pass from your blood into your body’s cells. Your liver and muscle tissues store extra glucose, also called blood sugar. It’s released when you need extra energy, such as between meals, when you exercise, or when you sleep.

In diabetes mellitus type 1 the body is unable to process glucose due to a lack of insulin. This causes elevated blood sugar levels and can cause both short-term and long-term problems.

Learn more: Defining 3 early stages of type 1 diabetes »

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Causes

What causes type 1 diabetes?

The exact cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown. However, it is thought to be an autoimmune disease. The body’s immune system mistakenly attacks beta cells in the pancreas. These are the cells that make insulin. It’s also unknown why the immune system attacks beta cells.

Risk factors

Who is at risk for type 1 diabetes?

Risk factors for type 1 diabetes are poorly understood. However, some factors have been tentatively identified.

Family history

Family history may be important in some cases of type 1 diabetes. If you have a family member with type 1 diabetes, your risk of developing increases. Several genes have been tentatively linked to this condition. However, not everyone who is at risk for type 1 diabetes develops the condition. Many believe there must be some type of trigger that causes type 1 diabetes to develop. These could include:

Race

Race may be a risk factor for type 1 diabetes. It is more common in white individuals than in people of other races.

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Symptoms

What are the symptoms of type 1 diabetes?

The following are symptoms of type 1 diabetes:

  • excessive hunger
  • excessive thirst
  • blurry vision
  • fatigue
  • excessive urination
  • dramatic weight loss in a short period of time

Also, ketoacidosis is a complication of diabetes. Symptoms for this condition include:

  • rapid breathing
  • dry skin and mouth
  • flushed face
  • fruity breath odor
  • nausea
  • vomiting or stomach pain

If you have one or more type 1 diabetes symptoms, you should visit your doctor. But if you have symptoms of ketoacidosis, you should get medical help right away. Ketoacidosis is a medical emergency.

Diagnosis

How is type 1 diabetes diagnosed?

Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed through a series of tests. Because type 1 diabetes often develops quickly, people are diagnosed if they meet one of the following criteria:

  • fasting blood sugar >126 on two separate tests
  • random blood sugar >200, along with symptoms of diabetes
  • hemoglobin A1c >6.5 on two separate tests
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Treatment

How is type 1 diabetes treated?

If you receive a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes, your body can’t make its own insulin. You’ll need to take insulin to help your body use the sugar in your blood. You can also help to keep your blood sugar level in a healthy range with proper diet and exercise.

Insulin

People with type 1 diabetes must take insulin every day. You usually take the insulin through an injection. But some people use an insulin pump. The pump injects insulin through a port in the skin. It can be easier for some people than sticking themselves with a needle. It may also level out blood sugar highs and lows.

The amount of insulin you need varies throughout the day. People with type 1 diabetes regularly measure their blood sugar to figure out how much insulin they need. Both diet and exercise can affect blood sugar levels.

Diet and exercise

People with type 1 diabetes should eat regular meals and snacks to keep blood sugar stable. A dietitian familiar with diabetes can help to establish a healthy, balanced eating plan. Exercise also helps lower blood sugar levels. Insulin amounts may need to be adjusted according to your level of exercise.

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Complications

What are complications of type 1 diabetes?

High blood sugar levels can cause damage to various parts of the body. If diabetes isn’t managed properly, it increases the risk of the following complications:

  • increased heart attack risk
  • eye problems, including blindness
  • diabetic nerve pain
  • infections on the skin, especially the feet, that could require amputation in serious cases
  • kidney damage
  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol

Diabetes can damage your nerves and lead to a condition called diabetic neuropathy. This is common in the feet. Small cuts, especially on the bottom of your feet, can quickly turn into severe ulcers and infections. This is because you can’t feel or see the cuts, so you don’t treat them. That is why it’s important to check your feet regularly if you have diabetes. If you happen to notice any foot injuries, let your doctor know right away.

Learn more: Tips for treating diabetic nerve pain »

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Outlook

What is the outlook for type 1 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes can be managed with proper treatment, like taking insulin, having a healthy diet, and getting exercise. People who manage their diabetes can live a healthy life.

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