Do You Know About Diabetes?
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Do You Know About Diabetes?

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD

Maybe there's a kid you know who always drinks diet soda. Maybe it's the kid who had to come down off the mound to eat a snack during a baseball game. And maybe that same kid is the one who goes home after school sometimes, saying he has to check his blood sugar before he can meet you at the mall.

If you have a friend or a classmate like this or this kid sounds just like you, you're not alone. There are 100,000 kids in America who do stuff like this every day because they have a disease called insulin-dependent diabetes (say: dye-uh-bee-tees). It's also sometimes called Type 1 diabetes or juvenile insulin-dependent diabetes.

What Is Insulin-Dependent Diabetes?
When you eat, your body takes the sugar from food and turns it into fuel. This sugar-fuel is called glucose (say: gloo-kose). Your body uses glucose for energy, so it can do everything from breathing air to playing a video game. But glucose can't be used by the body on its own - it needs a hormone called insulin to bring it into the cells of the body.

Most people get the insulin they need from the pancreas (say: pan-kree-us), a large organ near the stomach. The pancreas makes insulin; insulin brings glucose into the cells; and the body gets the energy it needs. When a person has insulin-dependent diabetes, it's because the pancreas is not making insulin. So someone could be eating lots of food and getting all the glucose he needs, but without insulin, there is no way for the body to use the glucose for energy. The glucose can't get into the cells of the body without insulin.

You may have heard older people talk about having diabetes, maybe people your grandparents' age. Usually, this is a different kind of diabetes called non-insulin-dependent diabetes. It can also be called Type 2 diabetes, or adult-onset diabetes. When a person has this kind of diabetes, the pancreas usually can still make insulin, but the person's body needs more than the pancreas can make.

Many people with this type of diabetes are overweight. Sometimes it can be controlled by eating a healthier diet, exercising regularly, and taking pills that can either help the pancreas make more insulin or make the insulin work better. Although this type of diabetes usually affects people over age 40, kids are getting it more often these days, especially if they are overweight.

When a kid is diagnosed with juvenile (insulin-dependent) diabetes, he will have that type of diabetes for his whole life. It won't ever change to non-insulin-dependent diabetes when he gets older.

How Does Someone Get Juvenile Diabetes?
Scientists now think that a person who has juvenile diabetes was born with a certain gene or genes that made the person more likely to get the illness. Genes are something that you inherit from your parents, and they are in your body even before you're born. Many scientists believe that along with having certain genes, something else outside the person's body, like a viral infection, is necessary to set the diabetes in motion by affecting the cells in the pancreas that make insulin.

But the person must have the gene (or genes) for diabetes to start out with - this means you can't get diabetes just from catching a flu, virus, or cold. And this type of diabetes isn't caused by eating too many sugary foods, either. Diabetes can take a long time to develop in a person's body - sometimes months or years. Another important thing to remember is that diabetes is not contagious. You can't catch diabetes from people who have it, no matter how close you sit to them or if you kiss them.

How Does a Doctor Know if Someone Has Diabetes?
If a doctor suspects that a kid has juvenile diabetes, usually he or she will do a test on the kid's urine. The test is not painful - the kid just needs to give the doctor a urine sample (pee in a cup). The doctor can then dip a special strip of paper that is treated with chemicals to detect sugar into the urine.

When a person has diabetes, the sugar (glucose) in the blood can't get into the body's cells normally, so it has nowhere to go and the level of sugar in the blood becomes high. The kidneys try to correct the amount of sugar in the blood by sending some of the glucose out of the body through the urine.

When a person is diagnosed with diabetes, he has usually been urinating a lot (because the body is flushing out the extra glucose in the urine), drinking a lot (to make up for all that urinating), eating a lot (the body is hungry for the energy it's missing), and losing weight (because the body starts to burn fat for energy since it can't use sugar normally).

But keep in mind that if you feel very thirsty one night, it doesn't mean you necessarily have diabetes - you might have had too much salty popcorn at the movies that day or been running around and sweating a lot during a game.

How Is Juvenile Diabetes Treated?
Kids with diabetes have to give their bodies insulin. When a person with diabetes takes insulin, he is doing the job that the pancreas can't do anymore. Insulin comes in a liquid that's injected into the body with a needle. When the insulin goes into the body, it works like insulin from the pancreas, bringing glucose from the blood into the body's cells so the body can use it for food and function normally. Usually, a person takes insulin two or more times a day, every day. Today, some kids and adults with diabetes get their insulin continuously through a small pump (about the size of a beeper) that they wear.

Diet is also used along with insulin to treat diabetes. This doesn't mean a diet to lose weight like the ones you see advertised on TV. It means eating healthy foods and not going overboard with sweets. Kids with diabetes need to think about what they eat because the sugar in food affects the levels of sugar in the blood.

Doctors and dietitians (dietitians are specialists who create food plans to help keep people healthy) figure out how many carbohydrates a kid with diabetes needs at meals and snacks (carbohydrates are the energy sources in food that the body turns into sugars). They also decide how much insulin he needs to take. Balancing the right amount of insulin with the food he eats helps keep his blood sugar at a healthy level. A kid with diabetes might also sometimes need to eat extra food when he exercises to keep his blood sugar at the right level.

And speaking of exercise . . . it's good for everybody, and especially for kids with diabetes. It helps kids with diabetes control their blood sugars, and it keeps their bodies in good shape. Lots of professional athletes and other active people developed insulin-dependent diabetes when they were young, and it didn't stop them - like baseball player Jackie Robinson, ice-hockey player Bobby Clarke, football quarterback Wade Wilson, and actress/dancer Mary Tyler Moore.

Does Diabetes Make a Person Different?
Kids who have diabetes look like everyone else. And they are like everyone else - it's just that their bodies don't make insulin anymore. So it's kind of silly to judge someone based on an organ in his body, right? A kid with diabetes will have to do special things sometimes, like check his blood sugar (he'll prick his finger or forearm to get a little blood and test it with a machine to see how much sugar is there). He might have to eat a snack on the bus during a long school trip. He might have to wake up earlier than everyone else at a sleepover so he can take his insulin and have some breakfast to stay on schedule.

But even though kids with diabetes have to do these things, diabetes doesn't keep them from doing the stuff they love - which is pretty much all the things that other kids love! They can still play sports, go out with their friends, star in the play, sleep over at friends' houses, and go on trips. They can even have a good time during a class party. The most important thing to remember is that kids with diabetes like to be treated like everyone else. No one likes to feel different or weird, and it can really help a kid if he knows that his friends are cool about his diabetes.

If you know a kid with diabetes, you probably have a lot more things that make you the same than things that make you different. And if you meet someone with diabetes, be sure to keep that in mind - because friends are all about having fun together, not having a perfect pancreas!

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: June 2002