Type 1 diabetes can occur at any age, but tends to develop in childhood. There is no cure, but the disorder can be successfully managed with insulin injections, nutrition and exercise. Other names formerly used for type 1 diabetes include juvenile diabetes and insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM).
Around two Australian children and as many as six Australians of all ages develop type 1 diabetes every day, which makes it one of the most common serious diseases among children. Diabetes is a disorder of the endocrine system, characterised by the body’s inability to use blood sugar (glucose).
There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes can affect anyone of any age, but is more common in people under 30 years and tends to begin in childhood. Other names for type 1 diabetes have included juvenile diabetes and insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM).
Estimates vary, but approximately one in every ten Australians with diabetes has type 1 diabetes. In fact, the incidence of type 1 diabetes in Australia is very high compared to other countries.
In order to use glucose for energy, the hormone insulin needs to be secreted by the pancreas, a gland of the endocrine system located in the abdomen. A person with type 1 diabetes is unable to produce insulin, after the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are destroyed by the body’s own immune system. Currently, treatment includes closely monitoring the blood sugar levels, modifying the diet and taking daily injections of insulin until a cure is found.
Symptoms of type 1 diabetes
The symptoms of diabetes include:
- Excessive thirst
- Frequent urination
- Weight loss
- Visual disturbances, such as blurred vision
- Itching skin, particularly around the genitals
- Nausea and vomiting.
The role of the pancreas
The digestive system breaks down carbohydrates into glucose. This simple sugar is then transported to each cell via the bloodstream. The pancreas secretes the hormone insulin, which allows the glucose to migrate from the blood into the cells. Once inside a cell, the glucose is ‘burned’, along with oxygen, to produce energy. The pancreas of a person with type 1 diabetes doesn’t make enough insulin to keep blood glucose normal.
Without insulin, the glucose remains in the bloodstream at high levels. The body recognises the dilemma and tries to provide the cells with other sources of fuel, such as stored fats. Extensive fat burning can release by-products called ketones, which are dangerous in high amounts.
The cause is unknown
The exact cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown and there is no cure. It is thought that some kind of environmental factor, perhaps a viral infection, induces the immune system to attack the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas in genetically susceptible individuals. There is then a long period without symptoms before the insulin-producing cells are destroyed and the blood glucose rises.
Complications of untreated type 1 diabetes
Untreated diabetes can severely damage many systems, organs and tissues of the body. Complications include:
- Kidney damage
- Increased likelihood of infections such as thrush and also more serious infections
- Damage to the eyes (diabetic retinopathy)
- Poor blood circulation in the legs and feet - potentially leading to lower limb amputation
- Damage to the nerves of the feet
- Significantly increased likelihood of heart disease and stroke
- Sexual impotence.
Diagnosis and treatment for type 1 diabetes
Diabetes is diagnosed with blood tests to check the glucose levels. There is no cure for type 1 diabetes, but the condition can be successfully managed. Treatment includes:
- Taking insulin daily by injections or by insulin pump
- Self-monitoring of blood sugar levels by regularly testing droplets of blood in a glucose meter
- Self-testing of urine with a test strip for high levels of ketones – not routinely, but when problems are suspected
- Regulating diet so intake is matched to insulin and exercise
- Increasing the amount of ‘slow’ carbohydrates in the diet, such as beans and fruit, which take longer to be absorbed by the body
- Regular exercise
- Maintaining regular checks for diabetes complications.
If a person with type 1 diabetes skips a meal, exercises heavily or takes too much insulin, their blood sugar levels will fall. This can lead to a ‘hypo’ (hypoglycaemic reaction). The symptoms include dizziness, sweating, hunger, headache and change in mood. This can be remedied with a quick boost of sugar (such as jellybeans or glucose tablets), then something more substantial like fruit. A person with type 1 diabetes should have lollies on hand at all times, just in case.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Tel. (03) 9696 3866
- Diabetes Australia Victoria Tel. 13 RISK (13 7475)
- Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute Tel. (03) 8532 1111
Things to remember
- Type 1 diabetes used to be called juvenile diabetes and insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM).
- Type 1 diabetes can occur at any age, but tends to develop in childhood.
- Type 1 diabetes is a common disease of childhood.
- There is no cure, but the disorder can be successfully managed with medication, dietary modifications and exercise.
You might also be interested in:
- Chronic illness.
- Chronic illness - coping at school.
- Diabetes - complications.
- Diabetes - diagnostic tests.
Want to know more?
Go to More information for support groups, related links and references.
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
(Logo links to further information)
Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF)
Fact sheet currently being reviewed.
Last reviewed: June 2011
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