Type 2 Diabetes in Children: Symptoms, Causes, and More

Written by Kimberly Holland | Published on August 12, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on August 12, 2014

What Is Type 2 Diabetes?

For decades, type 2 diabetes was considered an adults-only condition. In fact, type 2 diabetes was once called adult-onset diabetes. Unfortunately, what was once a disease mainly faced by adults is becoming more common in children.

What’s to blame? The driving factor behind the increase in type 2 diabetes in children is the obesity epidemic. In the last 30 years, childhood obesity numbers have skyrocketed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity in children has doubled in that period. At the same time, obesity in adolescents has quadrupled.

Being overweight is closely tied to the development of type 2 diabetes. Overweight children have an increased likelihood of insulin problems. As the body struggles to regulate insulin, high blood sugar leads to a number of potentially serious health problems.

Glucose & Insulin

When you eat food, your body converts the food into energy. This energy is in the form of a sugar called glucose. Glucose is the body’s main fuel. When you eat, glucose enters your blood, and your blood sugar levels begin to increase. As this happens, your body tells your pancreas to create insulin. Insulin helps the cells in your body absorb and use the glucose.

If you have type 2 diabetes, your body has difficulty using insulin. Without the help of insulin, blood glucose remains in your bloodstream. This leads to high blood sugar levels. These high sugar levels can cause the symptoms and signs associated with diabetes. Eventually, high blood sugar levels can become dangerous.

Symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes in Children

Signs and symptoms of type 2 diabetes are not always easy to spot. In some cases, the disease develops gradually, which means the symptoms are hard to detect. In other cases, children may not show any obvious signs.

If you believe your child has diabetes, keep an eye out for these signs:

  • fatigue: If your child seems extraordinarily tired or sleepy, their body may not have enough sugar to properly fuel their normal body functions.
  • thirst: Children who experience excessive thirst may have high blood sugar levels.
  • frequent urination: Excessive sugar levels in the blood stream can pull fluid from the body’s tissues. This may leave your child running to the bathroom for frequent restroom breaks.
  • increased hunger: Children with diabetes don’t have the insulin they need to provide fuel for their body’s cells. Food becomes the next best source of energy, so children may experience hunger more frequently.
  • weight loss: Even if your child is eating normally — or even eating more than normal — they may lose weight if they have developed type 2 diabetes. A proper glucose supply keeps muscle tissue and fat cells functioning, so when glucose levels are fluctuating, the muscles and fat cells shrink.
  • slow-healing sores: Sores or infections that are resistant to healing or slow to resolve may be a sign of type 2 diabetes.
  • darkened skin: If your child has type 2 diabetes, you may notice areas of darkened skin, also called acanthosis nigricans. Insulin resistance can cause skin to darken, most commonly in the armpits and neck.

Risk Factors for Type 2 Diabetes in Children

A child may have an increased risk for type 2 diabetes if one or more of the following is true for them:

  • They are overweight or obese. Kids with a body mass index (BMI) above the 85th percentile are more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, according to the Mayo Clinic.
  • A sibling or other close relative also has type 2 diabetes.
  • They show signs of insulin resistance, including dark patches of skin.
  • They are part of a racial group that has a higher incidence of type 2 diabetes. Children of Asian or Pacific Islander, Native American, Latino, or African descent are at increased risk for diabetes.

How to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes in Children

Parents, teachers, educators, and community leaders can help children become healthy and avoid diabetes.

To prevent diabetes in children try these techniques:

  • Practice healthy habits. Children who eat well-balanced meals and limit their intake of sugar and refined carbs are less likely to become overweight and develop diabetes.
  • Get moving. Regular exercise is important for preventing diabetes. Organized sports or neighborhood pick-up games are great ways to get kids moving and active. Limit television time and encourage outside play instead.
  • Set a good example. Children learn by their parents’ example, so be active with your child and encourage good habits by demonstrating them yourself.

Work with Your Child’s Pediatrician

If you are worried your child may have type 2 diabetes, make an appointment to see a pediatrician. Explain any symptoms and signs that you’ve noticed, and ask what the next steps are in determining if your child’s symptoms are caused by diabetes or by another condition.

It’s important you reach out to your child’s doctor early in the process. If it’s not diagnosed and treated properly, diabetes can cause serious damage to your child’s body, even in a short period of time. Fortunately, treatment and maintenance can help you and your child take control of their symptoms, their overall health, and their future.

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