Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks and destroys its own beta cells – the specific cells inside the pancreas that produce insulin. The beta cells cannot function properly, or there are not enough beta cells left to produce insulin.
Today’s scientists are still working to determine exactly what causes the body to turn on its own beta cells. Experts believe that genes, environmental factors and/or viruses can play a role. As researchers discover more about the cause, they hope to bring science closer to a cure for the condition.
About 5 to 10 percent of Americans diagnosed with diabetes have type 1. Usually, this form of diabetes is diagnosed in childhood or early adulthood, but it can appear at any age.
The most common symptoms of type 1 diabetes include excessive thirst, urination and/or hunger; weight loss; blurred vision and extreme fatigue.
Another symptom that is sometimes the first or even the only sign of type 1 diabetes is the detection of high levels of chemical substances called ketones in the blood — a result of diabetic ketoacidosis. People with type 1 diabetes are vulnerable to this dangerous and potentially fatal condition, in which the body, unable to metabolize glucose, metabolizes fat instead — leading to a buildup of ketones in the blood. At high levels, ketones are poisonous. Diabetic ketoacidosis can be detected via the blood work that is typically part of a routine physical exam.
While regular physicals and blood work are important for everyone and can help detect diabetes even if there are no symptoms, it is also especially critical for patients with type 1 diabetes to remain under the care of a diabetes specialist. Diabetic ketoacidosis can be triggered in type 1 diabetes patients by infection, injury, a serious illness, surgery, insulin deficiency and other unknown factors, and it’s important to monitor patients for this condition.
Treatment plans for type 1 diabetes typically includes:
Insulin Replacement Therapy: Because people with type 1 diabetes are not making enough insulin from their own bodies, insulin replacement therapy is an essential part of their treatment. Insulin can be delivered to cells through regular injections or through an insulin pump, which is slowly replacing frequent injections as a preferred insulin delivery system. With the pump, a new catheter is inserted every few days under the skin, and insulin is continuously infused into the body. There are also clinical trials to test other potential insulin delivery methods, including a patch and a nasal spray.
Exercise: In general, exercise can be beneficial in the management of type 1 diabetes. Exercise makes it easier to control blood glucose levels because it increases the body’s insulin sensitivity and makes it easier to maintain stable blood glucose levels. Exercise can also help people with type 1 diabetes avoid long-term complications, especially blocked arteries that can lead to heart problems.
Diet: It’s important for patients to understand the effects of different foods on blood glucose levels. Planning ahead and making healthy food choices are also important. Guidance from a physician and/or specialist in diabetes nutrition can be very helpful to type 1 diabetes patients.
Blood Sugar Monitoring: Regular blood sugar monitoring is essential for people with type 1 diabetes. Even if a patient does not feel symptoms, blood sugar may be at unhealthy levels, which puts the patient at risk for complications. A physician typically provides the patient with a glucometer – a device that can determine blood glucose levels from just a tiny drop of blood. Patients typically also see their doctors for regular blood tests that show average blood glucose levels for the most recent two to three months.