Spotting the Signs of Type 1 Diabetes

Updated 4/23/22

Maybe you’ve recently noticed that your child is unusually thirsty, or using the restroom more frequently. They seem grumpy and tired all the time. They’ve even lost a little weight.

What could be going on?

While all these symptoms seem harmless on their own, when they occur together, they could be signs of type 1 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes can come on suddenly or gradually in children and teens, and parents often disregard individual symptoms or overlook patterns that point to a potential diabetes diagnosis. But if diabetes is the culprit, the sooner it’s diagnosed, the better. Left untreated, diabetes can lead to serious complications or death.

Here’s what parents need to know.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system gets confused and attacks and kills the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. Without insulin, the body can’t process glucose (sugar) effectively. Cells can no longer absorb glucose and use it for energy. Instead, glucose builds up in the blood.

When blood sugar levels remain high for a long period of time, serious complications can occur, including nerve damage, heart attack, stroke and more. This is why it’s critical to identify type 1 diabetes early.

Type 1 diabetes can develop at any age, but there are peak periods between ages 5 and 6 and then again at 11 to 13. Research has shown that hormones may impact the timing or onset of disease.

Child drinking water

What causes type 1 diabetes?

Only about 5% of people with diabetes have type 1. It is a hereditary condition, so having a family history of the disease—especially a parent or sibling who has been diagnosed—increases a child’s risk of developing the disease. Scientists also believe the autoimmune response that characterizes type 1 could be triggered by something in the environment, even a virus.

While there is no cure for type 1 diabetes, the condition is manageable with the right care. Your child will need to replace the missing insulin with daily insulin injections or by using an insulin pump.

“With proper insulin therapy, plus the development of healthy diet and exercise habits, kids with type 1 diabetes are able to live long, fulfilling lives,” says Andrew Muir, MD, System Medical Director of Endocrinology and Diabetes.

If a child with type 1 diabetes is displaying symptoms, it means that the body isn’t processing glucose as it should. That’s why it’s important for parents to be educated and vigilant.

Contact your pediatrician immediately if you notice any of these early symptoms of type 1 diabetes in your child.

  • Increased thirst
  • Frequent urination (sometimes the first sign is bedwetting in a child who has been dry at night)
  • Extreme hunger
  • Weight loss despite eating more than usual
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision
  • Irritability or unusual behavior
  • Vaginal yeast infection in girls who haven’t started puberty or diaper rash in babies caused by excessive yeast

If these early symptoms aren’t recognized and treatment isn’t started, more serious symptoms can develop requiring emergency care. These may include:

  • Belly pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Labored, rapid breathing (possible with fruity or sweet-smelling breath.)
  • Loss of consciousness

A diabetes diagnosis can be overwhelming. There’s a lot to learn to ensure your child receives the right care. But the good news is that you don’t have to navigate this journey alone. Your child’s doctor will refer you to a diabetes specialist who will help you learn more about the specifics of managing your child’s diagnosis. As part of their diabetes care, you’ll be meeting with a team of providers on a regular basis.

With your help and the help of your child’s diabetes management team, your child or teen will eventually learn to manage their condition on their own. They will be taught how and why it’s important to:

  • Take insulin as prescribed by pump or injection.
  • Eat a balanced and healthy diet that involves carbohydrate counting.
  • Monitor their blood sugar, and check their blood sugar levels throughout the day.
  • Exercise regularly.

The key is to address diabetes head on. If poorly managed, type 1 diabetes can cause long-term complications into adulthood, including heart disease, stroke, vision impairment, kidney damage, skin problems and nerve damage.

With lots of support and supervision from you and your child’s care team, eventually managing their disease will become just another part of your child’s daily routine.

As you and your child begin navigating the many steps required to manage type 1 diabetes effectively, here are some questions to ask your diabetes management team:

  • How often should I check my child’s blood sugar levels?
  • Are there warning signs if glucose levels get too high or too low?
  • What if my child is afraid of insulin shots?
  • Are there any foods that I should not allow my child to eat?
  • What do I need to tell the school about my child’s condition?
  • How does exercise affect my child’s blood sugars?
  • At what age should I allow my child to take over managing type 1 diabetes?

Coping with a diagnosis

If your child or teen gets frustrated with having to manage the disease, ask your diabetes management team for the name of a therapist. Be available to listen to your child when they come to you with their frustrations. Help them find support groups in their communities. There are also many websites with information and resources for teens to help them cope with the diagnosis.

Andrew Muir, MD, is a board certified physician in pediatric endocrinology. Dr. Muir earned his medical degree at the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine, and completed his residency at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. He then completed a fellowship in pediatric endocrinology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, and then worked as a clinical research fellow at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville. Dr. Muir serves as the medical director of the Endocrinology and Diabetes Program at Children’s, and holds an academic appointment as an endocrinology professor at the Emory University School of Medicine. His research aims to understand the causes and effects of diabetes in children, and he has published numerous articles and authored or co-authored book chapters.

This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.