You probably know diabetes is a serious condition that can damage the heart, blood vessels, kidneys, eyes and neurological system if uncontrolled. But you may not realize that it’s common, even in kids: About 23,000 new cases are diagnosed in kids younger than 20 every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The good news is that research continues, and we’ve come a long way in managing both Type 1 (formerly called juvenile diabetes) and Type 2 (formerly called adult onset diabetes).
Whether your child’s been diagnosed recently or you want to learn the signs to look for, here’s what every parent should know:
There are different types.
Both Types 1 and 2 can occur in kids. “Type 1 is actually an autoimmune disorder,” says Ian Marshall, MD, associate professor in the department of pediatrics and chief of pediatric endocrinology at Rutgers-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “The cells that make insulin in the pancreas are attacked by the immune system.” Type 1 is more likely to develop in kids. It can’t be prevented, and its cause isn’t clear; but it seems to occur because of a complex interaction of genes and environment, says Marshall.
Signs include having to pee more often (including more bathroom trips in the middle of the night or during school, and bedwetting for younger kids), excessive thirst, excessive hunger and rapid weight loss. “The symptoms tend to progress quickly in a matter of weeks,” says Aditi Khokhar, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist and assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “If symptoms aren’t caught early, a child can develop stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and confusion, which is a serious condition called ketoacidosis that requires emergency care.”
Type 2 diabetes often develops later in life, though there’s been an uptick in the number of kids diagnosed in recent years due to the increasing obesity rate. It’s a disorder in which the cells don’t respond normally to insulin. It’s not clear what causes Type 2, but many kids who develop it have a family history or are overweight, says Marshall.
The symptoms aren’t as obvious for Type 2; a kid may need to pee more often, drink more or feel tired, but the signs can take years to develop. So, if your child has risk factors such as being overweight, ask your pediatrician about screening with a simple blood test, says Khokhar.
Diabetes is manageable with medications and healthy lifestyle choices.
Although neither type of diabetes is curable, both can be managed. “The most challenging part is the need to check blood sugar multiple times a day,” says Khokhar. “But we have new sensors and better meters to measure blood sugar than ever.”
Type 1 requires lifelong management with insulin shots or an insulin pump. There are no oral medications. Deciding what method to use is largely up to the family. For example, older kids may prefer shots if they don’t want to wear a pump. But it’s really a matter of what works best for the family, says Khokhar. Type 2 may be managed with oral medication, though some kids do require insulin.
Make healthy food choices and exercise.
“We don’t allow kids to smoke or drink, so we need to pay attention to what they’re putting in their bodies, too, because that can definitely negatively impact their health,” says Marshall. “Use common sense; we know when our kids aren’t eating right.”
Marshall also recommends 30 to 45 minutes of moderate exercise, such as organized sports, per day (not just going swimming once a week!). He also encourages parents to reduce kids’ sedentary behaviors caused by too much screen time.
There’s support available.
This isn’t a condition you have to manage alone. Your pediatric endocrinologist and his or her staff including nurses, nutritionists and social workers will work together to form a medical management plan, says Marshall. Your child’s school will also be in the loop.
If your child’s diagnosed with diabetes, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed or upset at first—but the more important issues are understanding how to help your child lead a full life. “It’s never easy for a parent to hear his or her child has a condition for life. A diagnosis is a life changer, but it doesn’t stop your child from doing anything he or she wants,” says Khokhar. “Your child’s otherwise a healthy child. I always tell parents that the day of diagnosis is the toughest, and then everything gets easier from there.”