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An increasing trend

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

Type 2 diabetes is a chronic condition that affects how the body metabolizes sugar, also known as glucose.

Between 2011 and 2012, about 23 percent of new diabetes diagnoses in children were type 2 diabetes.

Until 2001, type 2 diabetes accounted for fewer than 3 percent of all newly diagnosed diabetes cases in adolescents. Studies from 2005 and 2007 show that type 2 now comprises 45 percent of those diabetes cases.

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

Obesity in American children and adolescents has more than tripled since the 1970s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Genetics may also play a role. For instance, the risk of type 2 diabetes increases if one parent or both parents have the condition.

Symptoms of type 2 diabetes aren’t always easy to spot. In most cases, the disease develops gradually, making the symptoms hard to detect. Many people don’t feel any symptoms. In other cases, children may not show any.

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

1. Excessive fatigue

If your child seems extraordinarily tired or sleepy, changes in blood sugar may be affecting their energy levels.

2. Frequent urination

Excessive sugar levels in the bloodstream can lead to excessive sugar going into the urine which is followed by water. This may leave your child running to the bathroom for frequent restroom breaks.

3. Excessive thirst

Children who have excessive thirst may have high blood sugar levels.

4. Increased hunger

Children with diabetes don’t have enough insulin to provide fuel for their body’s cells. Food becomes the next best source of energy, so children may experience hunger more frequently. This condition is known as polyphagia or hyperphagia.

5. Slow-healing sores

Sores or infections that are resistant to healing or slow to resolve may be a sign of type 2 diabetes. Learn more about type 2 diabetes and skin health.

6. Darkened skin

Insulin resistance can cause skin to darken, most commonly in the armpits and neck. If your child has type 2 diabetes, you may notice areas of darkened skin. This condition is called acanthosis nigricans.

Type 2 diabetes in children requires testing by a pediatrician. If your child’s doctor suspects type 2 diabetes, they’ll likely perform a urine glucose test, a blood glucose test, a glucose tolerance test, or an A1C test.

Sometimes it takes several months to get a type 2 diabetes diagnosis for a child.

Diabetes in children is most common in those aged 10 to 19 years.

A child may have an increased risk for type 2 diabetes if:

  • they have a sibling or other close relative with type 2 diabetes
  • they’re of Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, Latino, or African descent
  • they show symptoms of insulin resistance, including dark patches of skin
  • they’re overweight or obese

Kids with a body mass index (BMI) above the 85th percentile were around four times as likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, according to one 2017 study. Current guidelines recommend that testing for diabetes be considered for any child who is overweight or obese and has at least one additional risk factor as listed above.

Treatment for children with type 2 diabetes is similar to treatment for adults. The treatment plan will vary according to the growth needs and specific concerns of your child. Learn about diabetes medications here.

Depending on your child’s symptoms and medication needs, teachers, coaches, and other people who supervise your child may need to know about your child’s treatment for type 2 diabetes. Talk with your child’s doctor about a plan for the times when they are in school or otherwise away from you.

Blood glucose monitoring

Daily blood sugar monitoring at home will likely be important to follow your child’s blood sugar levels and watch their response to treatment. A blood glucose meter will help you check this.

Shop for a blood glucose meter to use at home.

Diet and exercise

Your child’s doctor will also give you and your child dietary and exercise recommendations to keep your child healthy. You’ll need to pay careful attention to the amount of carbohydrates that your child takes in during the day.

Participating in approved, supervised forms of physical exercise every day will help your child stay within a healthy weight range and lessen the negative effects of type 2 diabetes.

Children with type 2 diabetes are at a greater risk for serious health problems as they grow older. Vascular issues, such as heart disease, are a common complication for children with type 2 diabetes.

Other complications, such as eye problems and nerve damage, may occur and progress faster in children with type 2 diabetes than in those with type 1 diabetes.

Weight control difficulties, high blood pressure, and hypoglycemia are also found in children with the diagnosis. Weakened eyesight and poor kidney function have also been found to occur over a lifetime of having type 2 diabetes.

Since diabetes is sometimes harder to diagnose and treat in children, the outcomes for children with type 2 diabetes aren’t easy to predict.

Type 2 diabetes in young people is a relatively new issue in medicine. Research into its causes, outcomes, and treatment strategies is still ongoing. Future studies are needed to analyze the long-term consequences of having type 2 diabetes from youth.

You can help children avoid diabetes by encouraging them to take the following steps:

  • 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.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Healthy diet and exercise habits can help children maintain a healthy weight.

It’s also important to set a good example for children. Be active with your child and encourage good habits by demonstrating them yourself.