The prevalence of diabetes in kids is on the rise. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), “about 210,000 Americans under age 20 are estimated to have diagnosed diabetes, approximately 0.25% of that population.” These statistics include type 1 and type 2 diabetes in children.
Type 1 diabetes in kids has been around forever. Over the past 10 years, however, the once rare type 2 diabetes in children is increasing at an alarming rate. The CDC reports a “4.8% increase per year for type 2 diabetes and a 1.9% increase per year for type 1 diabetes” in youth. As you’ll see, there are numerous reasons for this trend.
As a school nurse, caring for children with diabetes was a big part of my daily duties. These children and their families relied heavily on the school nurse to help navigate the early and steep learning curve when the condition is newly diagnosed. It was my job to keep these vulnerable children safe and help teach them and their families how to measure blood sugars, draw up and administer insulin injections, count carbs, and make wise food choices, along with knowing the signs of high and low blood sugar and how to deal with it.
The responsibilities accompanying diabetes in kids are immense and can overwhelm even the most knowledgeable parents and steadfast children. In addition to all of the physical needs, diabetes brings a tremendous load of unwanted emotional issues. Diabetes in children is a family affair that disrupts and involves everyone on many levels.
The 1st step in getting a handle on diabetes in kids is to understand the disease better. Let’s break it down and figure out the causes and the diabetes signs in kids to get a firmer grasp on this condition.
Type 1 diabetes in kids
Type 1 diabetes in kids is also known as juvenile-onset diabetes due to the onset typically occurring in the childhood years. Type 1 diabetes can also be termed diabetes mellitus or insulin-dependent diabetes.
All of these names describe a condition where your child’s pancreas no longer produces the life-sustaining hormone called insulin. Without insulin, sugar (glucose) builds up to a dangerous level in your child’s bloodstream. Over time, high glucose levels can cause severe complications if not managed. There is no cure for diabetes, so this condition will follow your child into adulthood.
However, type 1 diabetes in kids can be managed. Blood sugar control by careful monitoring and injectable insulin will sustain your child’s insulin levels to enable a full and healthy life. New devices such as insulin pumps, wearable glucose monitors, and blood sugar alarms have made the lives of children with diabetes much easier and safer than in the past.
What causes type 1 diabetes in kids?
Many people think that diabetes is caused by eating too much candy. Although I’ve known a good number of children diagnosed around holidays typically associated with sweet treats (such as Halloween, Easter, and Christmas), sugar has nothing to do with causing diabetes in kids.
The cause of type 1 diabetes is, unfortunately, unknown. Research into it is ongoing. It has been determined that type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune disease and like most auto-immune conditions, possible causes may be linked to a virus, environmental triggers, or genetics.
Therefore, there’s nothing to which a parent can attribute the onset of their child’s diabetes. This fact is a relief for many parents who beat themselves up trying to figure out if they could have prevented diabetes in their child.
Type 1 diabetes symptoms in kids
If you’re reading this article, you may be wondering what the signs of diabetes in kids are. Although type 1 diabetes in children can develop quickly, there are some early signs to watch for.
Signs and symptoms of type 1 diabetes in kids include:
- Unintentional weight loss (among the 1st early signs of diabetes in kids)
- Excessive thirst
- Frequent urination and bedwetting
- Fruity odor to the breath
- Becoming very ill if not diagnosed and treated
Symptoms of diabetes in kids will continue to worsen over time if left untreated.
Diabetes insipidus in kids, a rare kidney condition, is an entirely different disease but shares the symptoms of excessive thirst and urination. Your doctor will know how to differentiate between the 2 illnesses.
Diagnosing and managing type 1 diabetes in kids
Diagnosing type 1 diabetes in kids is fairly simple. Your pediatrician may ask for a urine sample or do a simple finger stick or blood draw to measure your child’s blood glucose. If it’s high, then further bloodwork may be necessary.
Most of the time, once diagnosed, children are hospitalized for monitoring and health teaching.
Due to the complexity of type 1 diabetes in kids, management will be an ongoing process of health teaching, monitoring, and learning to live with this life-altering condition. Your pediatrician, endocrinologist, diabetic nurse educator, and school nurse will team up with you and your child to help you along the difficult journey of managing your child’s diabetes.
What is type 2 diabetes in kids?
Until recently, type 2 diabetes was primarily an adult condition. Thus, it was termed adult-onset diabetes. However, due to increasing obesity in our youth, we have seen an emerging onset trend beginning at younger and younger ages.
I’ve witnessed the insidious creep of type 2 diabetes in kids. In my initial years of nursing, I only saw adults with type 2 diabetes. This type of diabetes in children was unheard of. As an experienced nurse, I began to see overweight teenagers diagnosed with this condition. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to take care of young children in elementary school with type 2 diabetes and preschoolers with symptoms of pre-diabetes.
So, what exactly is type 2 diabetes in kids? It is a condition where your child’s body has increasing difficulty processing glucose (sugar). Once again, if this type of diabetes is left untreated, high glucose levels will build up in your child’s bloodstream, causing serious complications.
The difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes is that in some instances, type 2 diabetes can be prevented and reversed if carefully monitored and treated.
Causes of type 2 diabetes in kids
The exact cause of type 2 diabetes is also unknown. However, children with a family history of type 2 diabetes may be more prone to developing the condition.
One significant factor contributing to type 2 diabetes in kids is inactivity and obesity, especially in children with excess belly fat.
Certain risk factors have been identified in relation to children and type 2 diabetes. They include:
- Family history
- Race—People of color, Asian Americans, and American Indians tend to develop type 2 diabetes at a higher rate.
- Sex—Girls are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than boys.
- Birth circumstances—Low birth weight, a mother with gestational diabetes, and premature birth are factors that increase the likelihood of a child developing type 2 diabetes.
Symptoms of type 2 diabetes in kids
Type 2 diabetes in kids develops over a long period, and at times, the signs can remain unseen. Your physician is most likely to pick up on subtle indicators that may lead to the need for further testing. Overweight children are a red flag for any pediatrician.
However, there are some symptoms that may indicate your child is on their way to developing type 2 diabetes, such as:
- Increased thirst and urination
- Weight loss
- Blurry vision
- Darkening of skin folds around the neck and armpits
How to prevent type 2 diabetes in children
We all want our children to grow up healthy and try to do whatever we can to prevent disease. Fortunately, there are ways to help decrease the likelihood of your child developing type 2 diabetes.
You can help by following some of these pointers:
- Encourage exercise for at least 60 minutes daily.
- Limit screen time and turn off computers, phones, devices, and electronics.
- Model and encourage healthy eating.
- Keep regular pediatrician appointments and ask your physician questions if you have concerns about diabetes, eating, exercise, and weight.
Dr. Nicolle Martin, a family physician, has an excellent guide on how to prevent type 2 diabetes in children. Other helpful resources are Kid’s Healthy Eating Plate and Healthy Eating from Kid’s Health.
Managing type 2 diabetes in kids
Once your child is diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, your physician will devise a plan to manage it. Weight loss and diet will be big factors in helping to control symptoms and the progression of this condition.
In addition, you will need to monitor your child’s blood sugar regularly and possibly give them medication prescribed by the pediatrician.
Your child will have a team of medical professionals, including a dietician, to will help guide you through this process.
No matter what type of diabetes your child has, coming to grips with the condition and managing it is difficult. If your child is newly diagnosed, I hope this article can serve as your starting point in understanding better type 1 or 2 diabetes in kids. I wish you all the best in this journey. Take it one day at a time and seek constant guidance and support from those around you, both medical professionals and loved ones.