Type 1 Diabetes

 

What is Type 1 Diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is a chronic, autoimmune disease that occurs when the body’s own immune system attacks the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas. This attack leaves the pancreas with little or no ability to produce insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar. Without insulin, sugar stays in the blood and can cause serious damage to organ systems, causing people to experience Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). 

When we eat, our bodies break down complex carbohydrates into glucose, the fuel we need. The pancreas releases insulin that acts as a kind of key to unlock the cells, allowing glucose to enter and be absorbed. Without fuel, cells in the body cannot survive. In addition, excess glucose can make the bloodstream too acidic, resulting in diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), which can be fatal if not treated. People with T1D must inject or pump insulin into their bodies every day to carefully regulate blood sugar.

Insulin is a hormone that regulates the amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood. Since a person with T1D does not produce enough or any insulin of their own, he/she must inject insulin into the body. There is no exact way of knowing how much insulin to inject to keep blood sugars “normal.” Because of this, there is always the possibility of a person with T1D having low or high blood sugars. Low blood sugars pose an immediate danger. High blood sugars pose long-term risks.

How Do I Get Type 1 Diabetes?

T1D is neither preventable nor curable and while its cause is unknown, studies prove that T1D results from a genetic predisposition together with an environmental trigger. T1D has nothing to do with diet, being overweight, or lack of exercise, and both children and adults can be diagnosed at any age.

T1D is not contagious, it cannot be “caught” by being close or touching a person with T1D.  The only cause of T1D is that a person’s own immune system attacks the person’s insulin producing cells.

How is Type 1 Diabetes Managed?

Living with T1D is a full-time balancing act requiring constant attention to avoid acute, life-threatening hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or the long-term damage done by hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). Blood sugar levels must be monitored several times a day either with finger pricks or a continuous glucose monitor. 

Insulin doses must then be carefully calculated based upon a number of factors including activity levels, food intake, illness, stress, as well as other additional factors.  This is why it is difficult to determine how much insulin to give to have “normal” blood sugar.  It is also the reason that people living with T1D sometimes have low or high blood sugar levels, even though the usual dose of insulin was given.

When a person with T1D has hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), the symptoms can be dangerous.  Symptoms can include: blurry vision, increased hunger, lethargy, confusion, sweating, inability to concentrate, etc.  Because a person with T1D who is demonstrating any of the above symptoms of low blood sugar might not be able to help him/herself, it is imperative to have the support of friends, family and co-workers who can help.  When a low blood sugar occurs, it must be treated with glucose (sugar) in order to raise the blood sugar up.  

If a person with T1D is experiencing hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), they may become easily agitated, have difficulty concentrating, blurry vision, extreme thirst, frequent use of restroom, headaches and fatigue.  Treatment for a high blood sugar is to give insulin to lower the high blood sugar level.

What is considered to be a “normal range” for blood sugar levels is 70-120, however, every person with Type 1 Diabetes is different and some may feel low being in the 70 range.  There is no “by the book” when it comes to living with T1D. Despite constant monitoring, people with T1D still run the risk of dangerous high or low blood-glucose levels, both of which can be life-threatening.

Insulin is Life Support but Not a Cure

While insulin injections or infusion allow a person with T1D to stay alive, they do not cure the disease, nor do they necessarily prevent the possibility of the disease’s serious effects, which may include: kidney failure, blindness, nerve damage, heart attack, stroke, and pregnancy complications.

The Outlook for Treatments and a Cure

Although Type 1 Diabetes is a serious and difficult disease, treatment options are improving all the time, and people with T1D can lead full and active lives.  There are many organizations driving research to progressively remove the impact of the disease from people’s lives until they ultimately achieve a world without T1D.

What is it Like to Have Type 1 Diabetes?

Ask people who have T1D, and they will tell you:  It’s difficult, it’s upsetting, it’s life threatening, and, it never goes away. But at the same time, people with T1D serve as an inspiration by facing the disease’s challenges with courage and perseverance, and they don’t let it stand in the way of achieving their goals.  

A person with T1D is a “normal” person in every way, except that they can’t produce enough of their own insulin. They can play sports, go on a sleepover at a friend’s house, be in a play, play a musical instrument, and do pretty much anything that a student without T1D can do. They just need to balance, as best as possible, their food, exercise, and insulin intake.

Statistics

·       1.67M Americans are living with T1D including about 200,000 youth (less than 20 years old) and over a million adults (20 years old and older)1,2,5

·       40,000 people are diagnosed each year in the U.S.1, 2

·       5 million people in the U.S. are expected to have T1D by 2050, including nearly 600,000 youth.2,3

·       Between 2001 and 2009 there was a 21% increase in the prevalence of T1D in people under age 20.3

Warning Signs

Warning signs of T1D may occur suddenly and can often be mistaken for a virus. Symptoms can include:

·       Extreme thirst

·       Frequent urination

·       Drowsiness/Fatigue

·       Increased appetite

·       Sudden weight loss

·       Sudden vision changes

·       Sugar in the urine

·       Fruity odor on the breath

·       Heavy or labored breathing

·       Stupor or unconsciousness

 

References

 

1.    The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) www.jdrf.org

2.    Beyond Type 1 www.beyondtype1.org

3.    EASE T1D www.easet1d.org

EASE Type 1 Diabetes Organization