Diabetes is a disease that is frequently misunderstood by parents, particularly when it comes to their young children.

Tiffany McAteer of Indian Trail, North Carolina, said she had no idea that Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease until her 7-year-old, Grace, was diagnosed this spring.

“Grace is an active child who prefers fruits and vegetables over most other foods,” McAteer said. “At her annual health exam, four months before her diagnosis, she had been given a clean bill of health.”

McAteer quickly realized that most of her knowledge about diabetes was related to Type 2 diabetes after her daughter was diagnosed. While the two types of diabetes differ quite a bit, both are becoming more prevalent in children.

“Type 1 diabetes is drastically different from Type 2 diabetes,” said Dr. R. Scott Spies of Novant Health Matthews Children’s Clinic in Matthews, North Carolina. “Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition often triggered by environmental factors, such as a virus. While it’s commonly known as juvenile diabetes, individuals can be diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes well into their adult life. Conversely, Type 2 diabetes is often caused by being overweight, which can cause your body to become insulin resistant.”

Approximately 1 in 350 children have Type 1 diabetes . For reasons that aren't clear, the immune system attacks and destroys certain cells in the pancreas that make insulin, which your body needs to convert blood sugar into energy. As a result, people with this type of diabetes must take insulin every day for life. When diabetes is poorly controlled, complications develop and can include blindness, amputations and kidney failure.

Initial signs of Type 1 diabetes include weight loss, excessive urination, increased thirst and appetite, headaches, fatigue, and, in some severe cases, vomiting. Unlike symptoms of Type 2 diabetes that occur over an extended period of time, symptoms of Type 1 diabetes occur quickly and they progressively worsen over a matter of days.

“About a week before Grace was diagnosed, she had the flu,” McAteer said. “She had lost some weight and had low energy, but I just assumed it was flu-related symptoms.”

Her mother-in-law, who has diabetes, noticed that Grace was drinking and urinating excessively. “Luckily, we had the resources available to test the level of her blood sugar, which registered extremely high,” McAteer said. “We immediately consulted with Dr. Spies and headed straight to Hemby Children’s Hospital where they treated her symptoms and educated us about the steps we needed to take to keep Grace healthy.”

Spies recommended that parents keep a close eye on any subtle signals that may indicate Type 1 diabetes.

“As a parent, if you notice your child is losing weight and excessively urinating and drinking, you should consult with their pediatrician,” he said. “Tests can quickly diagnose diabetes. A child who is experiencing a diabetic episode can become very sick, very quickly, so don’t be hesitant about seeking medical care.”

Currently, no cure exists for Type 1 diabetes. Patients typically manage their condition by:

  • Taking insulin.
  • Counting carbohydrates.
  • Monitoring blood sugars.
  • Eating healthy foods.
  • Exercising regularly.

Today, McAteer said more needs to be done in the way of educating parents about Type 1 diabetes. “Initially, it was very scary,” she said. “It’s an adjustment that has become a way of life.”

Compared to Type 1 diabetes, Type 2 diabetes has a much stronger genetic link to a person’s family history. However, environmental factors, such as obesity, poor exercise and eating habits also contribute to a person developing Type 2 diabetes. In fact, research has shown that the rising incidence of Type 2 diabetes has a direct correlation with the significantly rising obesity rates in the United States, especially in children.

“Until recently, Type 2 diabetes was virtually nonexistent in children, but as our population has become increasingly overweight so has the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes,” Spies said.

Poor eating habits and low activity are the major culprits for the rise in childhood diabetes cases, he said.

“We are essentially a society that is killing ourselves with a fork and plate,” Spies said. “It’s critical that parents incorporate more protein, fresh vegetables and whole grains in their child’s diet to ensure that they grow strong and healthy. Completely eliminating sugar or fatty foods from your child’s diet isn’t necessary, but they should only occasionally be included. Daily exercise and drinking mostly water is key to maintaining a healthy weight.”