All You Need to Know About Diabetes in Children

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    Throughout the world, incidences of diabetes are on the rise, and consequently so is diabetes amongst children.

    Diabetes is a long-term condition that affects the body’s ability to process sugar or glucose. It can have serious health consequences. However, with careful management, people with diabetes can continue to lead full, healthy and active lives.

    People with diabetes are unable to stop the level of glucose in their blood from getting too high. This is because a hormone called insulin is either absent from their body, or not working properly.

    Glucose is found in starchy foods, such as pasta, rice, bread and potatoes, as well as in fruit and sweet foods. When we eat food that contains glucose, insulin helps to move it from our blood into our cells, where it's broken down to produce energy. In people with diabetes, when the body doesn’t make enough insulin, or the insulin doesn’t work properly, that process is interrupted and glucose builds up in the blood. This is what causes the damaging symptoms of the condition.

    Around 2.9 million people in the UK live with diabetes. In 2009, around 150,000 people were diagnosed with the condition, and it's estimated that a further 850,000 people may have diabetes that hasn't been diagnosed. These people may be experiencing symptoms that they can’t explain or they may assume that the symptoms are due to other causes, such as getting older or having a busy lifestyle.

    Types of diabetes

    Here are two main types of diabetes:
    • Type 1 diabetes: in this type, the body can't produce any insulin. This type of diabetes usually occurs before the age of 40, and accounts for only around 10% of all cases. It's the most common form of childhood diabetes.
    • Type 2 diabetes: this is where the body doesn't make enough insulin, or where the body becomes resistant to insulin so that it doesn't work properly. It's the most common form of diabetes, accounting for around 90% of cases. It's frequently linked with being overweight.

    Type 1 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes in children, however Type 2 diabetes is now on the rise.
    Both forms of diabetes are life-long conditions that have serious potential consequences. Left untreated, diabetes can lead to heart disease, stroke, nerve damage and blindness. However, if treated effectively, people with diabetes can reduce the risk of those complications and also reduce the day-to-day symptoms.

    Many people with diabetes lead lives as healthy and active as those without the condition. There are world-class athletes who have diabetes, such as Sir Steve Redgrave.

    Symptoms of diabetes

    The symptoms of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes include:
    • increased thirst
    • drinking a lot of fluids
    • passing a lot of urine
    • being tired for no reason
    • weight loss
    • genital itching or repeated bouts of thrush
    • slow healing of wounds
    • blurred vision
    In type 1 diabetes, symptoms typically develop over a few weeks and quickly become very obvious.

    In type 2 diabetes, symptoms can develop more slowly, over a period of months. Some people with type 2 diabetes have very mild symptoms, which they believe have other causes. A few people may have no symptoms at all.

    How are children with diabetes treated?

    After diagnosis, a child will usually be referred to a regional diabetes specialist. Most children with diabetes are cared for by their hospital as opposed to their GP.

    Because type 1 typically means that the vast majority of islet cells have been destroyed and insufficient or zero insulin can be produced, the only certain method of treating diabetes in children is insulin treatment. Usually a diabetes care team will plan an insulin regimen suited to individual requirements and habits of the child.

    Fast-acting insulin will generally be administered during the day, and nocturnal levels will be controlled by a slow-acting dose.

    Insulin pumps are also common amongst children. Sometimes, in the initial period following diagnosis, small children will only need a very small dose of insulin, but this will unfortunately change as they grow older and larger. Good glucose control is essential in the management of all diabetics’ conditions.

    Treating type 2 diabetes in children depends entirely on how far their condition has developed. At an early stage, it may be possible to treat the condition with an abrupt lifestyle change incorporating a healthier diet and exercise.

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