What Is Type 1 Diabetes? Key Facts You Need to Know

Type 1 diabetes differs from type 2 in a few key ways.

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Type 1 diabetes, previously referred to as “juvenile diabetes,” is an autoimmune disease in which the pancreas does not produce insulin, a critical hormone, because of damage from the immune system. Your body uses insulin to convert glucose into energy. (Learn more about insulin and how it works here.) Since people with type 1 diabetes no longer make insulin on their own, they must take insulin as medication, and they need to be on it lifelong.

Causes of Type 1 Diabetes

Unlike type 2 diabetes, which often develops slowly over time, symptoms of type 1 diabetes usually come on more suddenly, and patients are often surprised to learn they have it. The exact cause of type 1 diabetes is unclear, but current research suggests it may be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes

Symptoms often do not appear until the vast majority of insulin-producing cells have already been destroyed. Because there is no longer enough insulin in the body to use up glucose, the person enters hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar. Here’s more information about blood sugar levels.

Warning signs of type 1 diabetes are similar to symptoms of hyperglycemia:

  • Constant feelings of thirst

  • Frequent urination

  • Fatigue

  • Sudden and unexplained weight loss

  • Blurry vision

  • Bedwetting in young children

Diagnosing Type 1 vs. Type 2 Diabetes

Patients with type 1 diabetes should have a random blood sugar test result greater than 200 mg/dL, as well as a fasting blood sugar test greater than 126. (By contrast, fasting blood sugar level in a healthy individual should be less than 100.) Doctors differentiate between type 1 and type 2 diabetes in a few key ways:

  • Age of patient. Although either type of diabetes can appear at any age, type 1 diabetes is more likely to begin at a younger age.

  • Blood sugar levels in relation to onset of symptoms. Type 1 diabetes is known for rapid onset of symptoms that seem to appear out of nowhere.

  • Insulin levels. Very low levels of insulin are common in type 1 diabetes patients since the insulin-producing cells are being destroyed.

  • Antibodies. The elevated presence of antibodies in the immune system is evidence of the autoimmune response that attacks the pancreas, which suggests type 1 diabetes.

Although type 1 diabetes can be an overwhelming diagnosis, professionals can help the patient and family to live a life as close to normal as possible.