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What is Type 1 diabetes and why does it occur?


There are two main types of diabetes, known as "Type 1 Diabetes" and "Type 2 Diabetes".

These two conditions are generally considered to be 2 different and separate conditions, so it is important to understand the differences between the two.

Some old names for Type 1 Diabetes include: "Juvenile Diabetes", "Insulin dependent diabetes mellitus" and "IDDM". These old names should not be used, as they are no longer considered correct.

Important Stuff to Know

In our bodies, an organ known as the pancreas produces insulin, which is a very important hormone. Insulin is vital because it enables the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. We need insulin to survive.

In Type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks the insulin producing beta cells in the pancreas. This usually happens in younger people, but it can happen at any age. When this happens, the pancreas no longer produces insulin.

So what happens if there is no insulin in your body?

The main effect is high blood sugar (hyperglycaemia). Insulin normally moves blood sugar into body tissues where it is used for energy. When there is no insulin, sugar builds up in the blood.

High blood sugar is dangerous, with many side effects. It also causes damage to the body.

What are the symptoms of Type 1 diabetes?

The symptoms of Type 1 diabetes are all based on the fact that there is high blood sugar. The symptoms include:

  • Extreme thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Lethargy, fatigue and drowsiness
  • Blurred vision
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Increased appetite, hunger

When the blood sugar is stabilised by treatment, these symptoms go away.

How is Type 1 diabetes treated?

Every person with Type 1 diabetes needs to inject themselves with insulin to survive. There are quite a number of different types of insulin, and a number of different insulin treatment regimens (daily injection schedules).

Treatment regimens should be tailored to the patient's lifestyle, to ensure best results.

So why does Type 1 diabetes occur?

Before anyone can get Type 1 diabetes, they need to have the genetic background even though there may be no-one in the family with diabetes.

In addition, something triggers the destruction of the insulin producing cells in the pancreas.

There seems to be a trend that shows that Type 1 diabetes is more often diagnosed / triggered during the winter months. As a result, most specialists agree that the most likely trigger of Type 1 diabetes is a virus.

Myths and Misconceptions – what NOT to believe

  • Type 1 diabetes only occurs in children. Not true! Type 1 diabetes usually occurs in children but can occur at any age.
  • Eating too much sugar causes Type 1 diabetes. Also not true! Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune condition where certain cells in the pancreas are destroyed by the body.
  • If someone uses insulin, they definitely have Type 1 diabetes. Wrong! Insulin is also sometimes used in Type 2 diabetes, which is a different condition.
  • Type 1 diabetes can be cured. Very wrong! Unfortunately, at this point in time, Type 1 diabetes is not curable. With good management and support from your healthcare team, it can be controlled and people with Type 1 diabetes can live normal and healthy lives.

Goals and Recommendations – Be SMART

  • Look out for the symptoms of Type 1 diabetes. If you notice these symptoms, it is likely that your blood sugar is high.
  • Control your blood sugar levels as best you can. This will avoid the short term and long term complications of Type 1 diabetes. Test your blood sugar the same number of times per day that you inject insulin.
  • Have regular appointments with your healthcare team. They can help you manage your Type 1 diabetes effectively.

Take Home Messages – What to Remember

  • Type 1 diabetes is a specific type of diabetes. It is an auto-immune condition where the body destroys certain insulin producing cells in the pancreas.
  • People with Type 1 diabetes need to inject themselves with insulin to survive.
  • A person of any age can develop Type 1 diabetes. Some people are more likely to get Type 1 diabetes than others.
  • There is usually a "trigger" that starts the development of Type 1 diabetes. This may be a viral infection.
  • Type 1 diabetes can be effectively managed with the support of a good healthcare team.