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Identifying, Treating & Managing Diabetes in a Child

What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a metabolic disease by which your pancreas does not produce enough insulin or your body does not properly respond to the insulin that is produced. This causes sugar levels to rise in the blood because the body cannot break sugar down properly.
The most common types of diabetes are type 1 and type 2. In type 1, which is most commonly diagnosed in children to young adults, the pancreas produces little to no insulin, which requires a person to start insulin injections several times a day. In type 2, typically diagnosed in adulthood, the pancreas is still producing insulin but the body is not able to use it properly.

What causes diabetes?
Many questions continue to surround this question. Research has identified certain genetic factors that play a role in making someone more susceptible to developing diabetes, but environmental factors are also involved. Type 2 diabetes has more of a genetic component but is also influenced by lifestyle factors such as obesity and inactivity.

How does diabetes affect a child physically?
Kids with controlled diabetes can live a very healthy life, with few long term effects. However, they must carefully manage their diabetes when they are active, under stress or ill. Illnesses and stress increase blood sugar, while exercise usually lowers the blood sugar.

What are the signs and symptoms of diabetes?
The signs and symptoms of type 1 and type 2 diabetes include:

  • Extreme thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Sugar in the urine
  • Blurry vision
  • Increase in appetite
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Fruity breath
  • Labored breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Slow healing cuts or bruises
  • Tingling, pain or numbness in the hands and feet

What should you do if you suspect your child might have diabetes?
If you notice that your child has extreme thirst, is frequently urinating and is losing weight, take him or her to the doctor. Symptoms can quickly advance to a dangerous level, so it is important to have your child seen as soon as you possibly can.

How is diabetes treated/managed?
Type 1 diabetes is managed with blood sugar monitoring before meals, taking calculated insulin doses for foods eaten, and blood sugar balance. Insulin can be delivered through injections or a pump or pod device that holds the insulin for use when needed. Type 2 diabetes, depending on the severity, can be treated with oral medications, insulin, exercise and following a healthy meal plan. Meal plans and exercise are beneficial for both types of diabetes.

How will your child’s life and activities be affected after diagnosis?
A child with diabetes needs support from a team of caregivers, including their pediatrician, parents, teachers and coaches. Diabetes is a condition that must be considered 24/7, including everything from telling the school about your child’s condition, telling their friends and coaches, and managing relationships with other family members who may feel neglected because they do not get the same attention. Many kids can live a normal life with controlled diabetes, but it is important to have a plan for sleepovers, parties, sports activities, going to camp, etc. Learning how to adjust insulin doses for all of these situations can help a child with diabetes feel like their life does not have to be so different. Children with diabetes also need a care plan for school that includes having emergency supplies for low blood sugars and high blood sugars.

Julie H. Paul, MS, RD, CDE, is the WakeMed ENERGIZE! Program Coordinator. Learn more about ENERGIZE! and the children’s diabetes services offered at WakeMed.