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Type 1 Diabetes Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is a serious life-long health condition that causes high blood sugar.

If you or a loved one has T1D, you may know it requires ongoing care to prevent complications.

UPMC's team of diabetes experts can help. We will work with you to manage your blood sugar and monitor your health.

You can live a healthy and normal life with the right treatment and support.

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Looking for T1D Care?

What Is Type One Diabetes?

T1D causes high blood sugar because your pancreas stops making insulin.

Insulin is a hormone that regulates how much glucose (sugar) is in your blood. It moves glucose from your blood into your cells. Without it, sugar builds up in your bloodstream.

T1D is also known as insulin-dependent diabetes because you must have daily insulin shots to stay alive.

About 5% of people with diabetes have type 1 diabetes.

Anyone can get type 1 diabetes, but it's mostly diagnosed in children or young adults.

What's the Difference Between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes?

There are some differences with type 1 vs. type 2 diabetes:

  • With type 1, you don't produce insulin. Most people with type 2 diabetes can make insulin, but either it doesn't work well, or they don't make enough.
  • Type 1 is more common in children, while type 2 is more common in middle-aged and older adults.
  • Doctors don't know what triggers type 1 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is more common if you are overweight and not active.
  • People with type 1 diabetes must have insulin shots, but most people with type 2 do not.

What are the types of type 1 diabetes?

Regular T1D starts suddenly and requires insulin right away.

Latent autoimmune diabetes in adults (LADA) is a subtype of T1D. It starts in adults, but most people with it don't need insulin for at least six months.

LADA shares features of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

What causes type 1 diabetes?

T1D is an autoimmune disease, which means your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells. In this case, they attack insulin-producing cells in your pancreas.

Doctors aren't sure what triggers this or any autoimmune disease, but these things may play a role:

  • Environmental factors like a virus.
  • Genes. Many people with T1D have inherited gene changes.

What are type 1 diabetes risk factors and complications?

T1D risk factors

You might have a higher risk of getting T1D if you:

  • Are a child, teen, or young adult.
  • Are White. African Americans, Hispanics, and Latinos are less at risk.
  • Have a family history, especially a parent or sibling with the disease.
  • Have another autoimmune disease, like Grave's disease or rheumatoid arthritis.

Complications of T1D

If left undiagnosed or untreated, T1D can lead to diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), a life-threatening condition.

DKA happens when you don't have enough insulin to get sugar into your cells for use as energy. Instead, your liver breaks down fat for fuel, producing acids called ketones.

With DKA, too many ketones cause dangerous and deadly acid levels in your blood.

Even without DKA, if you don't manage T1D well, you can also have these complications:

  • Blindness or vision problems.
  • Dental problems.
  • Heart disease and blood vessel damage.
  • Kidney disease.
  • Low blood sugar.
  • Nerve damage.
  • Pregnancy complications.
  • Stroke.
  • Toe, foot, or leg amputations.

How can I prevent type 1 diabetes?

Currently, there's no way to prevent or reduce the risk of T1D.

Since type 1 diabetes is genetic in part, if you're at risk, your doctor can test for autoantibodies. Having diabetes autoantibodies makes you more likely to get it.

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Type 1 Diabetes Symptoms and Diagnosis

What are the signs and symptoms of T1D?

Type 1 diabetes symptoms often occur suddenly, over a few days or weeks.

They can include:

  • Blurred vision.
  • Fatigue or lack of energy.
  • Increased hunger.
  • Increased thirst and urination.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Yeast infections.

Sometimes the first symptoms of type 1 diabetes are those of DKC.

DKC causes symptoms such as:

  • Breath that smells fruity.
  • Dry or flushed skin.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Trouble paying attention or feeling confused.

T1D requires fast medical care, especially if you or a child have symptoms of DKA. Contact your doctor or go to the nearest emergency department right away.

How do you diagnose type 1 diabetes?

Doctors diagnose T1D with blood glucose and autoantibody tests.

Blood sugar levels will tell whether you have diabetes or not. The presence of autoantibodies will confirm if diabetes is type 1 or type 2.

If your doctor diagnoses you with T1D, they may run further tests to check for complications.

They will also suggest you regularly have:

  • Blood and urine tests for kidney function.
  • Blood pressure checks.
  • Cholesterol tests.
  • Dental exams.
  • Eye exams.
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How Do You Treat Type 1 Diabetes?

T1D is a life-long disease. The best treatment and care come from a team approach.

UPMC's team of diabetes experts includes:

  • Dietitians.
  • Endocrinologists.
  • Exercise therapists.
  • Family and internal medicine doctors.
  • Mental health therapists.
  • Nurses.
  • Certified diabetes care and education specialists.

Our team provides tailored T1D care, education, support plans, and tools to help you stay healthy.

Type 1 diabetes treatments include medicine and lifestyle changes.

Medicine for T1D

Insulin is vital for treating T1D.

Different types of insulin start to work at different speeds, and their effects last different lengths of time. You may need more than one type.

Options for taking insulin include:

  • A needle and syringe.
  • An artificial pancreas. This automated insulin delivery system combines a glucose sensor, an insulin pump, and an insulin dosing algorithm.
  • An insulin pen.
  • An insulin pump.

A certified diabetes care and education specialist will teach you how to:

  • Check your blood sugar.
  • Use insulin and also tell you how much to take.
  • Prevent and treat low blood sugar.

Your health care team will meet with you regularly to review your blood sugar readings and ensure you stay healthy.

Lifestyle changes to manage T1D

A life-long healthy diet and lifestyle are vital for managing T1D.

UPMC's experts can work with you one-on-one and in our diabetes support groups to learn to:

  • Check your blood sugar throughout the day with a glucose meter or continuous glucose monitor.
  • Count carbohydrate grams so you calculate your insulin dose.
  • Eat a healthy diet with more high-fiber fruits, veggies, beans, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
  • Follow a special meal plan that our dietitian designs for you.
  • Stay at a healthy weight with diet and exercise.
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