What Is Type 1 Diabetes?

So what makes type 1 diabetes different than type 2? First, type 1 is much rarer, accounting for only 5 to 10 percent of all diagnosed cases of diabetes. With type 1 diabetes, the body’s immune system destroys special cells in the pancreas that manufacture insulin. These cells, called beta cells, are the only places in the body where insulin is produced. Without them, the body lacks the insulin it needs to move glucose out of circulation and control high blood sugar.

Other major characteristics of type 1:


  • 1.

    Needles are necessary.

    Because the body can’t produce insulin, type 1 patients need an outside supply of the hormone, self-administered by daily injections. That’s why type 1 is sometimes called insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, or IDDM. This term is used less frequently today, however, because people with type 2 diabetes sometimes need to take insulin as well. But the fact that injections are an inevitable part of daily life for all type 1 diabetes patients remains one of the key characteristics of this form of the disease.

  • 2.

    It strikes early.

    Type 1 diabetes often sets in during childhood, with about half of all cases developing before age 20. Most other cases begin in people up to age 30. It’s very unusual to see a case of type 1 diabetes crop up in anyone over age 40. Because it’s widely seen as a disease of the young (although you continue to have it your entire life), type 1 is sometimes called juvenile-onset diabetes. This term, too, has fallen out of favor, both because adults can get type 1 diabetes and because rates of type 2 diabetes in children are exploding.

  • 3.

    It strikes fast.

    The onset of type 1 diabetes is rapid compared with type 2, which can take years to develop. If you (or your child) have type 1, such classic symptoms as fatigue, excessive thirst, and frequent urination will probably become worse over a period of just weeks or months.

  • 4.

    There is a 'honeymoon' period.

    In the first several months after type 1 is diagnosed and treatment begins, 20 percent of patients seem to improve as the pancreas temporarily begins to increase insulin production once again. This period of remission may last for as long as a year, during which blood-sugar levels become more stable and insulin injections may not even be necessary. While all honeymoons must come to an end, researchers see this period as a potential window of opportunity. One day it may allow yet-to-be-perfected therapies to preserve beta cell function before it’s too late.

  • 5.

    Blood sugar jumps wildly.

    With type 1, the pancreas loses its ability to monitor and control blood sugar. As a result, blood-sugar levels tend to spike and crash with greater volatility than in people who have type 2 diabetes, since their pancreatic function is usually less severely impaired. With type 1, the job of the pancreas essentially falls to you. You control your blood-sugar level with the timing and dosage of your insulin injections. This makes monitoring your blood sugar critically important.

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