Type 1 diabetes in children: what you need to know

A new study says that misdiagnosing a child with type 1 diabetes can lead to a life-threatening condition called diabetic ketoacidosis. Here’s how to prevent and manage it. By Tammy Jacks


According to a study published in Pediatric Diabetes, the incidence of type 1 diabetes in very young children is rising globally. Unlike type 2 diabetes, which can be successfully managed with medication and lifestyle changes including a healthy diet and exercise regime, a person with type 1 diabetes needs daily insulin injections. Also, this condition can’t be reversed.

ALSO SEE: The facts about diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is often misdiagnosed in children

A recent study published in the July 2019 issue of Clinical Diabetes shows an alarming trend, says MPS Pharmacist and Head of R&D at Solal, Brent Murphy. Type 1 diabetes is often missed in about a quarter of children with the condition. This can be be life-threatening, he adds.

“Undiagnosed type 1 diabetes, where the body doesn’t produce insulin, is much more dangerous than type 2 diabetes, where the body does produce insulin, but the cells don’t respond to the insulin.

Undiagnosed type 1 diabetes is a medical emergency because the body is unable to use sugar (carbohydrates) as energy.  As a result, it’s forced to use only fat as energy. But, by using only fat, the body produces too many acidic ketones, which is dangerous. This condition is known as Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA) and often requires a trip to the ER where insulin injections are needed immediately,” says Brent.

Know the signs of type 1 diabetes  

Pretoria-based mom, Daleen van Blerk almost missed the signs of type 1 diabetes in her daughter. Luckily, she realised there was something wrong just in time and took her for blood tests.

“My daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes around her 7th birthday. She’s now 20 and has a good grasp on how to manage her insulin levels. But, the initial diagnosis was scary because we had no idea what it entailed.

The first time I noticed something was wrong was when she kept asking for something to drink. Her lips were wet, but she still appeared thirsty, even after drinking plenty of fluids. She also wet the bed a few times which she hadn’t done since she was two. I later found out that excessive urination is another sign of type 1 diabetes.

ALSO SEE: 7 signs your baby or toddler may have type 1 diabetes

She also had an insatiable appetite, yet she kept losing weight. She was very lethargic and irritable too. I became increasingly worried as she kept complaining that she was tired, and her thirst and hunger didn’t slow down.

I took her for blood tests and requested a fasting blood sugar test, having read that these were the symptoms of diabetes. When I got the results, my GP referred me to a paediatric endocrinologist in Pretoria.

I was in shock when the endocrinologist told me my daughter had type 1 diabetes and would need to be hospitalised right away so that she could be put on a rehydrating drip as she was severely dehydrated. He explained that when people younger than 35 get diabetes, it’s not linked to their lifestyle choices. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that isn’t reversible and my daughter would need to start an insulin regime as soon as possible.

How does type 1 diabetes develop?

My daughter had a viral cold a few months before her diagnosis and doctors suspected that the virus had attached itself to her pancreas. Her immune system mistakenly started destroying the beta cells on her pancreas, thinking it was attacking the virus. (Beta cells are the cells that produce insulin – the hormone that carries glucose from the blood through the cell wall into the cells, where it’s used for energy).

The treatment plan

After being in hospital for a week, I was amazed at how quickly my daughter improved. I couldn’t believe how fast she’d deteriorated in just a few months without me noticing.

The endocrinologist encouraged me to learn as much about type 1 diabetes as I could, which is exactly what I did, and my daughter and I learned to manage her condition successfully. She was on a regime of insulin injections (and an insulin pump later), plus carb counting for four years which worked well.

From the get-go, my daughter and I learned to read food labels and I used to put a note in her lunch box with the carb count of certain foods written down. Over the years she became an expert in learning the carb count in most foods. I wanted her to be as independent as possible by the time she went to high school. We also decided that being active was important for her health, so we encouraged her to take part in sports as exercise helps to control blood glucose levels.

ALSO SEE: Health benefits of exercise

Taking charge of the condition

Many people don’t understand how serious low blood glucose can be, which is why I wanted my daughter to be the expert on her condition and know how to handle it from a young age. Teachers used to tell her to sit under a tree if she felt ill or go fetch food to eat from the classroom, even though I told them that once the condition sets in, a child can become disorientated, unable to think or speak properly, and can faint.

Luckily my daughter understood her condition and could make the right decisions for herself when I wasn’t there. This made me feel more at ease, knowing she was in control.”

Managing type 1 diabetes in children

In addition to insulin injections and carb counting, as Daleen explained, Brent Murphy says that managing type 1 diabetes also requires:

  • Fat and protein counting
  • Frequent blood sugar monitoring
  • Eating whole, healthy foods
  • Regular exercise
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

“There are no dietary supplements that can treat diabetes. However, there is a mineral called chromium that can help manage both type 1 and type 2 diabetes,” says Brent. However, it shouldn’t be used in place of insulin or medication, but it’s useful when used in conjunction with insulin.

Research also shows that magnesium supplementation helps to slow down the progression of diabetic-induced nerve damage that type 1 diabetes can cause.  Brent says that magnesium and chromium are both safe for children to supplement with, but shouldn’t be a substitute for a proper diagnosis and treatment with insulin.

TOP TIP: Magnesium and chromium are the most important antidiabetic minerals of all minerals for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

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