Diabetes in Children: A Growing Epidemic

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes, known in the medical community as diabetes mellitus, is a disorder that makes it difficult for the body to regulate blood sugar levels. Diabetes mellitus occurs in the body’s immune system, preventing it from effectively warding off from viruses, bacteria and other foreign substances. Diabetes can be associated with major complications involving many organs including the heart, eyes, kidneys and nerves, especially if the blood sugar is poorly controlled over the years. There are two major types of diabetes: type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes.

What is Childhood Diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes, also called juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes, occurs when the body’s immune system attacks and destroys certain cells in the pancreas, an organ about the size of a hand that is located behind the lower part of the stomach. These cells normally produce insulin, which helps the body move the sugar contained in food into cells throughout the body to provide energy. But when these cells are destroyed, insulin can’t be produced, and sugar stays in the blood instead. If left untreated, diabetes can cause serious damage to all the organ systems of the body. Type 1 diabetes can occur at any age, but it most often occurs in children and young adults.

What’s the Risk?

Type 1 diabetes is the leading cause of diabetes in children of all ages. In children less than 10 years of age, type 1 accounts for almost all diabetes. A combination of genetic and environmental factors put people at increased risk for type 1 diabetes. Children with type 1 diabetes are at risk for long-term complications including damage to the cardiovascular system, kidneys, eyes, nerves, blood vessels, skin, gums and teeth.

Treating Childhood Diabetes

A diabetes management plan for young people by a pediatric physician includes insulin therapy, self-monitoring of blood glucose, healthy eating and physical activity. A diabetes management plan ensures proper growth and can prevent hypoglycemia so that the child can live a long and healthy life. Since the pancreas can no longer produce insulin, people with type 1 diabetes have to take insulin daily. Insulin can be administered either by injection or with an insulin pump.

Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes can begin years before symptoms of type 1 diabetes develop. Early symptoms include increased thirst and urination, constant hunger, weight loss, drowsiness and blurred vision. Children with type 1 diabetes may also experience a shortness of breath, abdominal pain and vomiting. If diabetes is not diagnosed and treated with insulin in time, the child can lapse into a life-threatening diabetic coma.

Type 2 Diabetes in Children

Until the last decade, the majority of children were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. But increasingly, more children and teens are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a disease traditionally seen only in adults. Some health organizations are reporting one-third to one-half of all new cases of childhood diabetes as type 2. Children with type 2 diabetes may have no symptoms or mild symptoms, making it hard for your child’s doctor to detect. Blood tests are required for the pediatrician to diagnose the disease. A child diagnosed with type 2 diabetes is generally born into a family with a history of the disease, predisposing the child to developing it. When this predisposition is combined with environmental factors, such as weight gain and a sedimentary lifestyle, the child’s blood glucose levels increase, eventually leading to diabetes.

Treating Type 2 Diabetes

Just as in adults with type 2 diabetes, it is common for children to be resistant to insulin and have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high triglyceride levels.
This puts the child at an increased risk of heart disease and other diabetes complications early in life. Children with type 2 diabetes may need to take oral medication, insulin or both to control the disease. Contact your pediatrician if you think your child may be at risk for diabetes.