Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder in which the pancreas cannot make a hormone called insulin. That’s because the body’s immune system, which normally fights infection, mistakenly attacks and destroys the insulin-making cells in the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ with glands that make hormones to help your body break down and use food.
Blood glucose (blood sugar) comes primarily from the food you eat and is the body’s main source of energy. Without insulin, cells are unable to use glucose as fuel, so it builds up to abnormally high levels in the blood. This causes such symptoms as increased thirst, urination and hunger, blurred vision, weakness and fatigue, and unexplained weight loss.
People with type 1 diabetes must take insulin every day to stay alive, watch what they eat, and regularly check their blood sugar levels to make sure they’re in the normal range.
Type 1 diabetes typically occurs in children and young adults, but it can start at any age. Having a parent or sibling with type 1 diabetes may increase your chance of developing the disease. In the United States, about 5% of people with diabetes have type 1.
We don’t yet know what causes type 1 diabetes, but scientists believe that there are genetic (inherited) and environmental (external) factors involved.
Left untreated, or when blood sugar isn’t controlled, over time type 1 diabetes can lead to serious health complications including heart disease, kidney failure, blindness, and amputations. A life-threatening condition called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) can also occur.
That’s why it is important to see an endocrinologist—a doctor who specializes in glands and the hormones they make—for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.
Why Choose Cooper to Diagnose and Treat Type 1 Diabetes
With 10 board-certified endocrinologists, Cooper is home to South Jersey’s largest and most comprehensive team of diabetes specialists. They also serve as faculty at Cooper Medical School at Rowan University—testament to the high level of advanced expertise available here. Count on us for:
- The latest knowledge about type 1 diabetes treatments, including insulin pump and continuous glucose monitoring therapies
- An American Diabetes Association (ADA)-recognized self-management and education program, providing exceptional guidance and support
- Shared medical appointments, an effective way to enhance self-care and improve outcomes; multiple patients are seen as a group for follow-up type 1 diabetes care. These voluntary group visits offer:
- Improved access to your doctor
- The benefit of counseling with additional members of your healthcare team (a nutritionist or health educator, for example)
- A secure forum to share experiences and advice with one another
- A multidisciplinary team approach to care— Because type 1 diabetes can affect multiple body systems, effective care requires a multidisciplinary team approach. As an academic medical center, Cooper has experts in more than 75 specialties, giving you streamlined access to all the expertise you need, all in one place.
Type 1 Diabetes Causes and Risk Factors
While it’s not known for sure what causes type 1 diabetes, scientists believe that certain genes and environmental factors—such as viruses—might trigger it.
The main risk factors for developing type 1 diabetes are:
- Family history: If you have a parent or sibling with type 1 diabetes, it increases your risk of having this disease; if both your parents have type 1 diabetes, the risk is even greater
- Age: Type 1 diabetes typically occurs in children and younger adults; in fact, it is one of the most common chronic conditions that develop in childhood. However, it can develop later in life, too.
- Genetics: Having certain genes may increase your risk of having type 1 diabetes
Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes
The symptoms of type 1 diabetes often appear suddenly and may include:
- Unusual thirst and frequent urination
- Extreme hunger along with unexplained weight loss
- Blurred vision
- Extreme weakness and fatigue
- Nausea and vomiting
- Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet
- Sores that don’t heal
- Irritability and mood changes
Sometimes the first signs of type 1 diabetes can be a life-threatening condition called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). When your body doesn't have enough insulin to use glucose for energy, it creates ketones, a chemical that breaks down fats for energy. When ketones build up to high levels, it can lead to coma or death.
DKA symptoms include breath that smells fruity, nausea or vomiting, trouble breathing, dry or flushed skin, stomach pain, and feeling confused. If you or someone you know has these symptoms, seek medical help right away.
Treating Type 1 Diabetes
Self-management is a vital part of treatment for type 1 diabetes, which aims to maintain your blood sugar at normal levels through regular monitoring, insulin therapy, diet and exercise:
- Monitoring: This involves testing your blood sugar levels at home—usually several times a day—with a portable electronic device (glucose meter); the meter reads the amount of sugar in a drop of blood, usually from your fingertip, that you place on a disposable test strip
- You may also use a continuous glucose monitor, an electronic device that measures your blood sugar every few minutes using a sensor inserted under the skin
- Insulin therapy: There are several choices for insulin delivery; your doctor can help you decide what works best for you:
- Shots or pens: You inject insulin into the fat just below your skin with a syringe and needle or a pen-like device; how often depends on your blood sugar levels and how often you eat
- Insulin pump: This device pumps small, steady doses of insulin throughout the day into a thin tube inserted beneath your skin
- Inhaled insulin: This type of fast-acting insulin is inhaled before each meal
- Diet: A healthy diet can help manage blood sugar levels
- Exercise: Moderate physical activity helps the body use blood sugar efficiently