Diabetes, also called diabetes mellitus, is a serious medical condition that can affect both children and adults. In fact, childhood diabetes is on the rise in the United States with the rates of new diagnoses increasing 4.8% per year from 2002 to 2015.
For this reason, it is important to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of diabetes so that you can get your child diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.
In this article, we will discuss the causes, symptoms, and risk factors of childhood diabetes and also answer some common questions about it.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when there is too much sugar, also called glucose, in your blood.
When you eat or drink something, the food digests and breaks down into glucose. However, your cells also need the hormone insulin to use glucose as a source of energy.
When the body does not produce enough insulin or does not use it properly, the glucose stays in your blood causing an elevated blood sugar level and over time can damage vital organs such as the heart, eyes, kidneys, and nerves.
There are two main types of diabetes that can afflict children: type 1 and type 2 diabetes and we will detail the difference between the two below.
Type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes, also called juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes, is an autoimmune disease usually diagnosed in children and young adults.
In this form of diabetes, the body stops producing insulin due to your autoimmune system attacking the insulin-producing cells in your pancreas.
Type 1 diabetes treatment involves using insulin therapy via insulin injections or insulin pumps.
Type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes, also called adult-onset diabetes or non-insulin-dependent diabetes, can develop at any age but is most commonly diagnosed in overweight adults over the age of 40.
In type 2 diabetes, the body does not produce enough insulin or is unable to use it properly due to your cells becoming insulin resistant.
While type 2 diabetes is more common in adults, children are also at risk, especially if they are overweight or have a family history of the disease.
What are the symptoms of diabetes in children?
While symptoms of type 1 and type 2 diabetes can differ slightly, there are some general symptoms that are common among children with diabetes.
Increased thirst and frequent urination
When your body is unable to properly process glucose, it tries to rid itself of the excess sugar by flushing it out through urine. The increase in urination can lead to dehydration and an increase in thirst.
When your cells are not able to convert glucose into energy, you may feel tired or sluggish.
If diabetes is not controlled, it can cause fluid buildup in the lens of your eye, resulting in blurry vision.
If your cells are not getting the energy they need from glucose, you may feel hungrier than normal.
Despite an increase in appetite, weight loss can occur as the body breaks down muscle and fat for energy.
Nausea and vomiting
In very severe cases, diabetic ketoacidosis can develop. Ketoacidosis is a condition in which the body produces high levels of ketones, which are acidic, that build up in the blood and urine.
Ketone monitoring may be necessary as ketoacidosis can lead to diabetic coma or even death.
There are a couple of symptoms that are unique to each type of diabetes and these include:
Breath smells sweet, fruity, or like wine
You will only find this symptom in children with type 1 diabetes and it is caused by a buildup of ketones in the blood.
If your child has type 2 diabetes, he or she may develop a condition called acanthosis nigricans which is a skin disorder that causes patches of dark, thickened skin to form on the body.
The darkened skin usually occurs around the neck or armpits and is caused by insulin resistance.
If you notice any of these symptoms in your child, it is important to contact a doctor as soon as possible for a diagnosis.
Diabetes is a serious disease that, if left untreated, can lead to organ damage and even death. However, with proper treatment and medical care, your child with diabetes can live a long and healthy life.
Causes of diabetes in children
The causes of diabetes will be dependent on which type your child has and we will detail them both below.
Type 1 diabetes causes
The cause of type 1 diabetes is still unknown but it is believed to be related to a combination of genetic and environmental factors such as exposure to viruses.
Type 2 diabetes causes
The exact cause of type 2 diabetes is also unknown; however, if your child is obese and inactive they are more likely to get it.
Genetics also seem to have a strong correlation when being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and if you have a family history of diabetes, your child has a higher chance of developing the disease.
Risk factors for diabetes in children
There are certain risk factors that can increase your child’s chances of developing diabetes and they depend on the type.
The risk factors for each type include:
Risk factors for type 1 diabetes
- Family history: if you or a close relative has type 1 diabetes, your child has an increased chance of developing it as well
- Environmental factors: there are certain viruses that have been linked to the development of type 1 diabetes such as the Coxsackie virus, Epstein-Barr virus, and cytomegalovirus
- Genetics: mutations to certain genes can also cause type 1 diabetes
- Race: white children of non-Hispanic descent have a higher chance of getting type 1 diabetes than children of other races
Risk factors for type 2 diabetes
- Obesity: being overweight or obese is the number one risk factor for type 2 diabetes
- Inactivity: not getting enough physical activity can increase your child’s chances of developing it
- Family history: if you or a close relative has type 2 diabetes, your child has an increased chance of developing it as well
- Race: Hispanic/Latino, Asian American, Native American, and African-American children have a higher chance of getting type 2 diabetes than children of other races
- Age: type 2 diabetes is diagnosed more often in older children but is being seen in younger children as childhood obesity rates increase
- Sex: boys are more likely to get type 2 diabetes than girls
- Gestational diabetes: this is a form of diabetes experienced by pregnant women and if you had it during pregnancy then both you and your child are at a higher risk for type 2 diabetes
- Birth weight: low birth weight has been linked to type 2 diabetes in childhood
- Premature birth, children born before 39 weeks of gestation are at a higher risk
If your child has some of these risk factors please talk to your doctor or health care professional to see if he or she may have diabetes.
Complications of diabetes in children
There are many diabetes complications your child may experience without blood sugar management. Some of the potential complications of type 1 and type 2 diabetes include:
- Heart disease
- Kidney damage
- Eye damage
- Nerve damage
- High blood pressure
- Foot damage
- Skin conditions
- High cholesterol
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
If left untreated, your child is at risk for these complications caused by diabetes. Please talk to your child’s pediatrician or medical professional if you believe he or she may have diabetes.
Can you prevent diabetes in children?
Currently, there is no way to prevent type 1 diabetes in children; however, if you make healthy lifestyle choices for your child then you can prevent type 2 diabetes.
Healthy lifestyle choices include regular exercise and eating a healthy diet and both can also lessen symptoms and the need for treatment by bringing blood glucose levels back into the normal range if your child already has type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes is a chronic condition that causes high blood glucose levels and can have serious implications on your child’s health if left untreated.
There are two main types of diabetes that your child can develop: type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Type 1 is usually diagnosed in children or young adults while type 2 is usually diagnosed in older adults although there is an increasing frequency in children.
Common symptoms for both types of diabetes include extreme hunger and thirst and frequent urination among many others. It is important for your child to see a doctor if he or she displays any of the symptoms as complications from diabetes can lead to eye damage, kidney damage, and even death.
There is no way to prevent type 1 diabetes but type 2 diabetes can be prevented with a healthy diet and regular exercise. If you have any more questions, please talk to your child’s pediatrician or health care professional.
References and Sources:
- Type 1 diabetes in children
- Type 2 diabetes in children
Fact Checked and Editorial Process
Diabetic.org is devoted to producing expert and accurate articles and information for our readers by hiring experts, journalists, medical professionals, and our growing Diabetic.org community. We encourage you to read more about our content, editing, and fact checking methods here. This was fact checked by Erik Rivera and medically reviewed by Dr. Angel Rivera.
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