What (& Why) is Type 1 Diabetes?

T1D: Symptoms, Cause & Treatment

About 1 in 500 children under the age of 14 (including about 30,000 school-aged kids (1)) in Canada have Type 1 Diabetes (T1D), also known as insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (and previously known as juvenile diabetes), a chronic disease where the pancreas no longer produces insulin. Children under five years old are the fastest group of newly diagnosed cases.

Canada has one of the highest incidence rates of T1D in the world, along with U.S.A., Australia, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland and Norway (2).

But what exactly is Type 1? What warning signs do parents need to look for? And what are the key components that every effective T1D treatment plan should include?

After food is eaten, it breaks down into glucose (sugar). The pancreas, which makes insulin, helps the body use glucose for energy. A person with type 1 diabetes does not make insulin. Without insulin, glucose cannot move into the cells. Glucose builds up in the bloodstream and is passed into the urine.

Common Signs of Diabetes:

  • increased urination (peeing)
  • thirst
  • weight loss
  • tiredness
  • nausea and vomiting (sometimes)
  • breath that smells like sweet nail polish remover

Causes of Type 1 Diabetes

No one knows for sure what causes type 1 diabetes. But we do know that eating too much sugar does NOT cause type 1 diabetes. Researchers think a combination of three things is involved:

  • genetic factors
  • an environmental trigger (perhaps viruses)
  • an autoimmune response (the body destroys its own insulin producing cells)

Tips from the Trenches

Remember: Nothing could have been done to prevent your child from developing diabetes. No one is to blame. This is a tough one for many of us parents to believe. As parents, we often believe that it is our job to protect our children, so if something bad happens to them, it must be our fault; somehow we failed to do our job as protector. But we cannot say emphatically enough: THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT, regardless of what that well-meaning but uninformed neighbour or teacher or second-cousin-twice-removed had to say on the subject. When my son was diagnosed, I had people ask me if he had eaten too much sugar; some asked if he had been overweight/inactive or where he had “caught” diabetes. The reality is that, given our current knowledge of the cause of type 1 diabetes, there is nothing you could have done to prevent this.

More on the emotional impact of T1D diagnosis:

Treatment of Type 1 Diabetes

At present, there is no cure for type 1 diabetes. However, it can be effectively managed so that your child doesn’t miss out on normal childhood activities.

Type 1 diabetes is treated by:

  • balancing carbohydrate (sugar- or glucose-containing food) with injected insulin (Insulin can be delivered with a syringe, pen device or insulin pump.)
  • checking blood glucose

Diabetes Management involves juggling the three main factors that affect blood glucose. These are:

  • food
  • insulin
  • activity

(Food increases blood glucose; insulin and activity generally decrease blood glucose.)

The goals of diabetes management are:

  • keeping the blood glucose as close to normal as possible (normal BG is 4-7 mmol/L)*
  • ensuring normal growth and development
  • promoting social and emotional well-being
  • reducing the risk of long-term complications

*Actual blood glucose targets may vary according to, among other things, your child’s age. It’s typically 6-10 mmol/L for younger kids and moves to 4-7 mmol/L when they become very aware of their lows. For example, when my (Michelle’s) son was diagnosed as an infant, his blood glucose targets were 7.0 for the daytime and 9.0 overnight.

Remember: Your child is a child first and a child with diabetes second. Diabetes does not have to stop your child from taking part in normal childhood activities.

The above information was used with permission from The Alberta Children’s Hospital Diabetes Clinic information handouts.

The above information was reviewed for content accuracy by clinical staff of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Diabetes Clinic.