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Diabetes In Children

What Is Diabetes in Children?

Monday, April 15, 2013 - 13:30
Contributors to this article: 

Meyer B Davidson MD
Guy Slowik FRCS

Diabetes affects the way the body uses food. It is caused by a lack of insulin, a hormone made in the pancreas that is essential for converting energy from food. Insulin is necessary for the body to process nutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins), and its absence causes high sugar (glucose) levels in the blood.

There are two types of diabetes:

  • In type 1 diabetes, which usually starts in childhood, the pancreas stops making insulin altogether. It is also called insulin-dependent diabetes.
  • In type 2 diabetes, which starts in adulthood (and in some teenagers) the body still makes some insulin. But it doesn't make enough insulin, or the body can't use it properly. It is also called non-insulin-dependent diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes can often be controlled by weight loss, sensible eating, and pills to improve the insulin supply or help it work better.

But type 1 diabetes must always be treated with insulin injections. Insulin can't be taken by mouth because it would be digested in the stomach, just like food, and the body would be unable to use it.

What Does Insulin Do?

Insulin is a hormone released from the pancreas. A hormone is a chemical messenger secreted by a gland that then travels in the blood to act on other parts of the body. Insulin is the primary substance responsible for maintaining appropriate blood sugar levels. Insulin allows sugar (glucose) to be transported into cells so that they can produce energy or store the glucose until it is needed.

Most of the food we eat is turned into glucose, which serves as our main source of energy. Insulin is the "key" that allows glucose to move from the bloodstream into the body's billions of cells, where it serves as fuel.

Here's what happens without insulin:

  • Glucose can't get into the cells, so the cells begin to starve. Symptoms: The child feels tired and short of energy and may lose weight, even if eating more than usual.
  • When the cells can't get glucose, the body turns to its own store of fat for fuel. The process of burning fat produces acids called ketones. In people with diabetes, these build up in the blood. Symptoms: The child will urinate much more than usual, as the body tries to wash excess glucose and ketones out of the body. The child will also drink more than usual to make up for lost fluid.
  • As ketones reach toxic levels, the combination of dehydration and excess ketones may cause a serious condition called ketoacidosis. Symptoms: The child may feel nauseous and sleepy, with deep and rapid breathing. Without treatment with insulin and fluids, ketoacidosis can result in coma and eventually death.

Nice To Know:

It's normal for parents to be upset and depressed when a child is diagnosed with diabetes. You also may feel overwhelmed by how much there is to learn. But very soon you and your child will feel more in control of the situation and more optimistic.

Although diabetes is a lifelong condition, modern treatment methods make it possible for a person with diabetes to do anything other people can do. So there is no reason why your child should miss out on any of the normal activities of childhood.

Your child's doctor and other members of the diabetes team will be your main source of information. They can show you and your child what needs to be done. This information will serve as a reminder of how to carry out the many tasks involved in keeping your child's diabetes under control and what to do in emergencies.

Facts About Diabetes

  • Almost 16 million Americans have diabetes, but about one-third of them are not aware of their condition because they have no symptoms.
  • Nearly 800,000 new cases of diabetes are diagnosed each year in the U.S.
  • The chance of developing diabetes increases with age. It affects 0.16% of people under age 20, 8.2% of people age 20 and older, and 18.4% of people over age 65.
  • Non-Hispanic blacks are 1.7 times as likely to have diabetes as non-Hispanic whites.
  • Hispanic/Latino Americans are almost twice as likely to have diabetes as non-Hispanic whites of similar age.
  • The direct medical cost of diabetes in the U.S. is $44 billion. Indirect costs, such as disability and work loss, are $54 billion.


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