Type 1 diabetes used to be called juvenile diabetes for a reason: it is often diagnosed before the age of 20, and childhood cases of diabetes account for somewhere between 5 percent and 10 percent of all diabetes cases. That means nearly 1 in every 500 children in the United States suffers from diabetes.
Unfortunately, that number is on the rise.
Though the exact cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown, scientists believe it happens when the body’s immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Insulin is used to break down glucose from food into components the body can use; when this process stops, glucose builds up in the bloodstream and becomes dangerous. People with type 1 diabetes must inject themselves with insulin multiple times a day in order to regulate their blood sugar.
Type 1 diabetes can be diagnosed at any age in a person’s life, including during infancy. However, it can be much harder to diagnose in children than adults because they are less able to communicate how they are feeling to their parents or doctors. Signs of diabetes in children are often mistaken for other conditions, such as general infections, illness, or even normal teenage moodiness.
To keep your child safe, it’s essential to know what symptoms can indicate that they have developed type 1 diabetes.
Diabetes is a disease that affects how the body processes food and nutrients, so it makes sense that several of the symptoms to look for are related to your child’s diet and weight. Your child may experience an increase in appetite but begin to lose weight quickly in spite of how much he or she is eating. You may also notice that your child becomes much thirstier than normal and needs to urinate more frequently.
Other symptoms are harder to notice, or may be easily attributed to other factors. Your child may become tired or lethargic on a regular basis, feel physically weaker than normal, or become uncharacteristically moody.
Recurring yeast infections are often a sign of type 1 diabetes; yeast colonies feed off sugar in the body, so an increased level of glucose in the bloodstream often leads to unhealthy levels of yeast as well. Yeast infections don’t just happen to girls; they can occur in boys and babies as well. Children with diabetes are also more prone to bacterial skin infections, such as styes or boils, as well as general skin itching, often on the legs.
If you notice your child squinting or having trouble reading, even that could be a warning sign. Many children with type 1 diabetes experience sudden changes in their eyesight after having excellent vision for years.
Symptoms of diabetes can appear slowly, or they may come on very suddenly. You may notice just one or two symptoms in your child, or they may suffer from several all at once. Watch for any symptoms or behavior that seems out of the ordinary and bring them to the attention of your doctor as soon as they appear. Waiting too long to talk to your child’s pediatrician can put your child at risk for seizures, a diabetic coma, or even death.
Your child’s doctor will be able to tell you if the symptoms you noticed are likely indicators of diabetes and may prescribe an oral glucose test to check if your child’s blood sugar levels are too high or low. If the test indicates that your child’s glucose levels are abnormal, you will be able to start treatment immediately.
Remember, you are your child’s best advocate when it comes to noticing new symptoms or unusual behavior. If you see anything out of the ordinary, regardless of whether it could have another cause, talk to your doctor immediately.
May 17, 2016
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA