Diabetes in children: factsheet

Checking blood sugar levels a daily task
Checking blood sugar levels a daily task Photo: Getty Images

What is it?

Diabetes is a condition characterised by the increased levels of glucose (a type of sugar) in the blood. The hormone Insulin usually moves the glucose from the bloodstream into the cells of the body. However, if the body cannot make adequate amounts of Insulin or it does not perform its function properly, the glucose is not moved, hence resulting in higher levels of this type of sugar in the blood.

The impact of high glucose levels in the blood can affect both short term and long term health.

There are two main types of diabetes:

  1. Type 1 diabetes:  This type is an autoimmune condition as the body works against the production of Insulin by destroying pancreatic cells that create it. This leaves little or no Insulin for the body to ensure proper transport of glucose to the different cells.
  2. 2.       Type 2 diabetes: This type of diabetes is a result of insufficient levels of Insulin in the body or due to the impaired functioning of the hormone.

Is it common?

Type 1 diabetes is more common in children and young adults. One in ten Australians with diabetes have this type, pushing Australia’s rates to one of the highest in the world.

Type 2 diabetes was less commonly observed in children, however recently, Diabetes Australia reports that this type is also being observed in the younger generation, with the rise of obesity and other lifestyle habits.

What are the causes?

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The exact cause of Type 1 diabetes is still being researched, however, the presence of certain genes can predispose the child to develop the condition. Other causes include viral infections which could act like a trigger, making the immune system attack the Insulin producing pancreatic cells.

Type 2 diabetes in children is largely thought to occur due to lifestyle habits. Being overweight or obese can mean that their bodies are likely to be producing Insulin which does not function effectively, causing a condition called Insulin resistance. If the child’s pancreas does not produce sufficient Insulin to cater for the lower levels, Type 2 diabetes can result.

What are the warning signs and symptoms?

Type 1 diabetes:

  • Excessive thirst
  • Urinating frequently
  • Heavy breathing
  • Weight loss
  • Dehydration
  • Blurred vision
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Being tired

In some children with insufficient Insulin, a condition caused Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA) can develop. This condition results when the cells start burning fat for energy, in the absence of glucose, releasing dangerous by-products called ketones in the process. This is a dangerous condition and requires immediate treatment in hospital. Some warning signs include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Deep, rapid breathing
  • Fruity smelling breath
  • Drowsiness

Type 2 diabetes symptoms in children are often mild and can develop slowly. The effects of high blood glucose levels in children may cause:

  • Thirst
  • Excessive urination

Those children at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes include:

  • Being overweight or obese and any two of:
  • Having blood relatives with Type 2 diabetes
  • Having an Aboriginal/Pacific Islander/other high risk ethnic background
  • Insulin resistance as diagnosed by a doctor

What are the treatment options?

There is currently no cure for diabetes. In the case of Type 1 diabetes, treatment plans include:

  • Daily Insulin injections or infusion through a pump
  • Regular monitoring of blood sugar levels by finger prick tests
  • Diet improvements to include low GI foods like beans and fruit
  • Regular exercise
  • Undertaking regular health checks for complications

In children diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, their symptoms are usually taken into account to create a treatment plan that involves:

  • Adapting a healthy eating and exercise plan
  • Medications to reduce insulin resistance in those children who are overweight in combination with maintaining a healthy lifestyle
  • Regular health checkups to monitor the development of any complications like heart disease or kidney problems.

For more information on Type 1 diabetes in children and adolescents, visit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Australia. Further details on Type 2 diabetes can be found through the Diabetes Australia website.

November 14 is World Diabetes Day. Visit Diabetes Victoria’s website for details on initiatives in your area to help support those children afflicted by it.

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