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Type 1 diabetes is a disorder usually caused by autoimmune destruction of the insulin secreting cells of the pancreas resulting in the body’s inability to produce sufficient insulin to meet bodily needs. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that allows the body to use sugar for energy. Without insulin, glucose (sugar) from the carbohydrate food you eat cannot enter cells. This causes glucose to build up in the blood, leaving your body cells and tissues starved for energy. While a variety of tissue transplantation techniques are under development and some genetically-based treatments have been proposed, at this point in time, the only widely-available treatment for type 1 diabetes is the injection of insulin.

How Type 1 Diabetes Occurs

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The American Diabetes Association estimates that 500,000 to 1 million people in the United States have type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes usually begins in childhood and young adulthood between 8-12 years of age. It was previously called juvenile diabetes, but the name was changed to type 1 diabetes mellitus since adults, as well as children, can develop this disease. The latter is then called latent autoimmune diabetes of adulthood (LADA).

In the United States, type 1 diabetes is one of the most frequently diagnosed chronic diseases of children. According to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International, each year approximately 30,000 Americans are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, over 13,000 of whom are children—35 children every day.

Type 1 diabetes is caused by the attack and destruction of insulin-producing cells (beta cells) in the pancreas by the body's immune system. In people who may be genetically predisposed to this disease, exposure to factors in the environment may trigger the immune system response. The exact cause remains unknown. The trigger may be a virus, a food, a chemical, or a drug.

Type 1 diabetes may also develop because of other medical conditions. It may develop in:

  • People with chronic type 2 diabetes who lose the ability to make insulin.
  • Some with chronic pancreatitis or pancreatic surgery. They may lose the cells that make insulin.
  • People with cystic fibrosis.

The key to controlling diabetes is maintaining your blood sugar level (fasting and after meals) within a normal range. This is done with a combination of insulin therapy, diet, and exercise. When your blood sugar levels are not within the ideal range, diabetes can cause the following problems:

In the short-term:

  • High blood sugar (hyperglycemia)
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), which is the result of too much insulin

In the long-term:

  • Blindness
  • Kidney disease
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Nerve disease, which can lead to amputations
  • Impotence
  • Vascular disease of the lower extremities
  • Early death

What are the risk factors for type 1 diabetes?
What are the symptoms of type 1 diabetes?
How is type 1 diabetes diagnosed?
What are the treatments for type 1 diabetes?
Are there screening tests for type 1 diabetes?
What are the complications of type 1 diabetes?
How can I reduce my risk of type 1 diabetes?
What questions should I ask my doctor?
What is it like to live with type 1 diabetes?
Where can I get more information about type 1 diabetes?

References:

Diabetes causes. National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases website. Available at: http://diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/causes/index.aspx. Accessed December 31, 2012.

Diabetes type 1. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us. Updated December 28, 2012. Accessed December 31, 2012.

Type 1 diabetes. American Diabetes Association website. Available at: http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/type-1/?loc=DropDownDB-type1. Accessed December 31, 2012.



Last reviewed September 2013 by Kim Carmichael, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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