Is diabetes a disease that affects only the elderly? Or can children get diabetes as well? 

After seeing the movie, Greenland, it struck me that children live with diabetes and, of course, whose diabetes isn’t caused by lifestyle choices. 

Although childhood diabetes is not a common occurrence (it’s more common in older adults), about 1.1 million children and adolescents are currently living with type 1 diabetes in the world. 

Not only do children get diabetes, but recently, there has been an increased occurrence of diabetes in children.

What is childhood diabetes?

Childhood diabetes or diabetes mellitus is a manageable chronic disease that affects how the body processes and regulates blood sugar (i.e., glucose) which is gotten from food. The condition is characterised by high blood glucose levels, which leads to harmful effects on the body.

Thus this normal process in which nutrients are converted into fuel for the body is compromised in diabetes. This process usually involves the hormone insulin; hence it is no surprise that insulin is commonly implicated in the development of diabetes. 

Types of diabetes in children

There are two types of diabetes, and these are:

Type 1 diabetes: 

This is the more common type of diabetes in children, and it’s also referred to as juvenile diabetes. It’s an autoimmune disease whereby the child’s immune system attacks and destroys pancreatic cells, which produce insulin.

Hence, the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin, which acts as a switch responsible for regulating the level of glucose present in the blood. Since insulin level is significantly low, the excess sugar in the blood is not used up by the body tissues, causing high blood sugar.

Type 2 diabetes: 

In this type, enough insulin is produced by the pancreas, and the body doesn’t destroy cells of the pancreas. However, the cells in the body are insensitive to the insulin produced, so the blood sugar level is not regulated.

In other words, insulin is like a ghost – it’s right in front of the body cells that need it, but they just don’t know it’s there; thus, blood sugar level is high!

Causes of childhood diabetes

Type 1 diabetes: 

As earlier mentioned, it’s an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks itself. The body destroys the beta cells of the pancreas that produce insulin. 

The exact reason why this happens is unknown. Genetics and environmental factors have been suggested to be possible causes of type 1 diabetes. Since juvenile diabetes is due to the body attacking itself, it cannot be prevented.

Type 2 diabetes: 

If a parent or relative to a child has type 2 diabetes, there is a possibility that the child will have it too – this type of diabetes is hereditary. 

Being overweight or obese can also cause diabetes in children. The onset of type 2 diabetes can be delayed or prevented by:

  • Eating healthy diets: Ensure that your child eats healthy foods containing low calories, such as low-fat foods and nutrient-rich foods. Healthy foods help prevent obesity or being overweight – PS: don’t forget to add fruits, vegetables, and fibre to your diet.
  • Limit sugar intake: Foods and drinks containing a high amount of sugar should not be consumed often by children; they should be reduced.
  • Increase physical activity: Your child should reduce the amount of time spent watching TV or surfing the internet – here’s an article about screen time use for children. Physical activities, including exercise, will not only keep your children fit, but it will help reduce unhealthy weight gain.

Signs/symptoms of childhood diabetes

Below are symptoms that are seen in both type 1 and 2 diabetes mellitus in children:

  1. High blood sugar level: If this isn’t present, then it’s unlikely that your child has diabetes mellitus.
  2. Increased thirst: An increase in blood sugar level causes an increase in thirst. Why? Because the body is trying to reduce the blood sugar concentration and dilute sugar, you need water. Ultimately, children with diabetes drink more water than usual.
  3. Tiredness: Sugar isn’t meant to remain in the blood; it’s meant to be taken up by specific cells and tissues to provide energy to the body. But in diabetes, it remains in the blood, and the body doesn’t get enough energy. Not enough energy means the child is always going to be tired. 
  4. Blurry vision: Check in with a doctor if your child begins to find it difficult to see amongst other symptoms mentioned above.
  5. Weight loss: A diabetic child may also experience sudden weight loss due to the loss of sugar that would have been stored as fats. However, weight loss is more common in type 1 diabetes.
  6. Increased urination

A distinguishing factor of type 1 diabetes from type 2 is ketoacidosis – the accumulation of ketones in the blood due to the digestion of fats. Fruity or sweet-smelling breath is a sign of ketoacidosis.

Common myths about childhood diabetes

Myth 1: Kids with diabetes should not consume sweets

Children with diabetes should reduce their total calories intake. Sweets do not contribute so much to this. Hence the number of sweets should only be limited and not stopped entirely.

Myth 2: Kids can outgrow diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is caused by the body attacking cells of the pancreas (an autoimmune disorder). The pancreas is already destroyed and cannot be reversed, so kids can’t outgrow diabetes. 

Diabetes in children can only be managed with insulin and not cured. On the other hand, for type 2 diabetes, there may be good improvement in the blood sugar level.

Myth 3: Diabetes is contagious

Diabetes is not the flu and cannot be transmitted from one person to another. 

Myth 4: High blood sugar levels are normal for some people and aren’t a sign of diabetes.

High blood sugar in the blood is never normal. It may be as a result of an underlying disease but, you should always see your doctor if your child’s blood sugar level is high.

Myth 5: Kids with diabetes can’t exercise

Having diabetes should not stop a child from exercising. Exercise is a beneficial practice that reduces stress and improves the heart’s health, amongst other health benefits.

Frequently Asked Questions on childhood diabetes

How long can children have diabetes without knowing?

Children can have diabetes for years without knowing. Type 2 diabetes takes time for the symptoms to develop; hence it’s not uncommon to miss diabetes in children. 

In type 1, diabetes can’t be under the radar for a pretty long while because the symptoms appear much faster in a child’s early years. Moreover, diagnosis is usually made as early as six months of age.

Can a child live a normal life with diabetes?

Of course, if the disease is managed well along with love and care, a child with diabetes can live an everyday, fabulous, and happy life.

Can childhood diabetes be cured?

Childhood diabetes cannot be cured, not even with insulin, but it’s manageable.

When are children typically diagnosed with diabetes?

Children can be diagnosed with diabetes at any age after blood tests are done for confirmation. Diagnosis usually peaks at the age of 5 and then at puberty for type 2, while type 1 diabetes usually occurs in children older than 6 months.

Can babies get diabetes?

Yes, babies younger than 6 months old have neonatal diabetes, which is quite different from type 1 diabetes. This rare form of diabetes is also treatable but may not require insulin.  

The Gist 

Diabetes is a condition primarily characterised by high blood sugar levels either due to insufficient insulin or due to body cells being insensitive to insulin.

So can children get diabetes? Yes, type 1 and type 2 diabetes can both occur in children. And in babies younger than 6 months, a rare form, neonatal diabetes, can occur.

Unlike type 2 diabetes, type 1 diabetes can not be prevented but is manageable with insulin. 

With the proper diet, medication, and a healthy lifestyle, childhood diabetes can be effectively managed, and health complications associated with the disease will be prevented.

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