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Signs and Symptoms of Childhood Diabetes

written by: AngelicaMD • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 3/18/2011

Diabetes type 1 affects thousands of children and young adults. Unlike adult-onset or type 2 diabetes, juvenile-onset or childhood diabetes is an autoimmune disease not related to obesity or diet. Learn more about recognizing the signs of childhood diabetes to prevent complications.

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    What is Diabetes Type 1?

    Diabetes type 1, childhood diabetes or juvenile-onset diabetes mellitus are terms used to describe a chronic, autoimmune disease affecting thousands of children and young adults with a marked increase in blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia). Unlike that of diabetes type 2, childhood diabetes is not related to obesity, increased sugar in the diet or lack of exercise. The young individual usually has a total lack of insulin brought about by the inability of the pancreatic cells to produce the hormone. Without insulin sugar content in food cannot be absorbed from the blood to be utilized by the cells, and when it accumulates complications can occur.

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    Signs and Symptoms of Juvenile Diabetes

    Complications of diabetes arise from inability to control blood sugar levels with adequate treatment. These complications include damage to the heart, the kidneys, the nerves, the skin, the eyes and many more. To avoid these complications, one must recognize the signs of childhood diabetes because it is a chronic, lifelong disease requiring continuous monitoring of blood sugar levels and treatment with insulin.

    One must suspect the development of diabetes type 1 in children and young adults who experience within a period of weeks the following symptoms:

    • Excessive thirst, followed by increased need to drink and urinate – this is due to the accumulation of sugar in the blood which pulls the water from the cells and gives the child a feeling of dehydration
    • Excessive hunger or increased appetite – since sugar is not absorbed and utilized by cells, there is an energy depleted state and the child constantly looks for energy foods
    • Unexplained weight loss – the cells are not able to store any source of energy (sugar or carbohydrate) so that even when the child is eating quite well muscle mass and fat do not develop
    • Lethargy or fatigue - without sugar as energy source in the cells one will feel constantly tired
    • Moodiness or irritability – the brain also needs sugar; without enough sugar the brain cells are also negatively affected
    • Vision changes, such a blurring and inability to focus – due to the drying effect on the lenses of the eyes

    When these symptoms occur suddenly or rapidly, they are warning signs that must alert a parent, caregiver, teacher or any adult to seek immediate help or treatment.

    Aside from these symptoms, warning signs that may lead to the diagnosis of type 1 diabetes are:

    • Presence of sugar in the urine – a positive finding in the urinalysis should alert one to suspect diabetes
    • Presence of genital yeast infection in female children or young adults – yeast thrives in the presence of glucose in the urine and vaginal secretions
    • Fruity or sweet smelling breath – indicates the presence of ketones that are derived from the degradation of fat; this should be considered a dangerous sign
    • Unconsciousness – due to severe reduction or lack of sugar in the brain cells

    These signs and symptoms of hyperglycemia may be found in children and young adults who have not been diagnosed or treated as diabetics. However, these may also be experienced by those who are being inadequately monitored and treated with insulin injections.

    Recognition of these type I diabetes symptoms is important for the early diagnosis and treatment of the disease. Prompt lowering of blood sugar levels by giving appropriate drugs like injectable insulin and regular monitoring of glucose levels are important to avoid the development of complications.

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    References

    Mayo Clinic, “Type 1 diabetes in children", http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/type-1-diabetes-in-children/DS00931/DSECTION=symptoms

    JDRF, “Warning Signs for Type 1 Diabetes", http://www.jdrf.org/index.cfm?page_id=103498