Lorraine first noticed that her 11-year-old son Andrew had lost weight one afternoon when she picked him up from day camp. It was probably the result of being on the go so much at camp, she thought. He was also thirsty a lot, and tired, but the Colorado mom chalked this too up to the hot weather and Andrew’s activity levels. Then the fatigue worsened, and his thirst grew… and Lorraine knew in her gut that something was very wrong.
“I called the doctor’s office and explained what was going on. I was told to bring him to the emergency room. We went straight there, thinking that maybe he was experiencing some kind of summer flu. But it wasn’t that.”
It was type 1 diabetes.
For those not familiar with the condition, here’s the short explanation: Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder in which the pancreas stops producing insulin, a hormone that serves as a kind of “key” to unlock our body’s cells and allow glucose (sugar) to enter and be converted into energy. Without insulin, sugar stays — and builds up — in the bloodstream, and cells don’t receive the raw material they require to produce fuel.
Type 1 diabetes has no known cause and no known cure. To maintain blood sugar control, people with type 1 are required to take insulin, either through shots taken several times a day or administered through an insulin pump. Type 1 diabetes was once called juvenile diabetes because the disease most commonly shows up during childhood. T1D can develop at any age, however.
When insulin levels drop and blood sugar builds up, it can trigger a wide variety of symptoms. Warning signs of type 1 diabetes can include:
- Sudden weight loss
- Excessive thirst
- Frequent urination
- Fruity/acetone-scented breath
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weakness or fatigue
- Increased appetite
- Sugar cravings
- Abdominal pain
- Vision changes/blurriness
- Itchy skin or genitals
- Vaginal yeast infection
- Slow-healing wounds
- Recurrent infections
- Flushed, hot, dry skin
- Muscle or leg cramps
- Shortness of breath
- Labored breathing
- Drowsiness or lethargy
- Irritability or mood changes
With such a wide variety of symptoms, it’s often easy for parents to mistake warning signs for other common childhood conditions or overlook them altogether. According to Laura Gandrud, M.D., a pediatric endocrinologist at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, “Sometimes the progression of the symptoms is so gradual that the increase in thirst and urination or weight loss are not noticed.” Sometimes the increase in water intake is attributed to hotter weather. The nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain might be assumed to be a stomach bug. In many situations, parents may recognize symptoms, but they don’t know that the symptoms can be due to diabetes.
Of course, sometimes symptoms like thirst and fatigue are, in fact, being caused by something else — like that scourge of summertime, heat exhaustion. Amy Baxter, M.D., an emergency room pediatrician, says that when a child is incredibly thirsty, there are certain follow-up questions that help zero in on whether the underlying problem points to type 1 diabetes. “Is the child waking up at night wanting to drink cold water? Endocrine thirst [related to a problem with insulin] usually drives cold water consumption, and will wake a child from sleep,” she notes. That can help differentiate diabetes from simple sports dehydration or other problems.
Most of these kids have no known family history of diabetes, making it even more confusing for parents when they find out their child has developed the condition.
If you suspect your child might be developing type 1 diabetes, contact your doctor and ask for your child’s blood sugar to be checked. Depending on the severity of symptoms, your doctor may ask you to bring your child to the office or head to the emergency room. “Testing for diabetes can be done by screening the urine for sugar or by testing the blood sugar level, often done with a finger-stick to obtain the blood sample,” says Gandrud, and takes only a few seconds.
If blood sugar levels are higher than normal, a child may then require further evaluation to confirm a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. If diagnosed, he or she will then begin taking insulin to bring blood sugar levels back into normal range.
For Lorraine, it was terrifying to sit in the ER not knowing what was wrong with her son. Helping Andrew, now 21, adjust to life with type 1 diabetes has had its challenges, but she says it’s nothing compared to how she felt that day sitting by her little boy’s side.
“He was so weak, and all I could do was pray with all my might that he would survive. I had no idea what type 1 diabetes really was when the doctor first brought it up. Finding out he had it was a shock… but then [after receiving treatment], he was sitting up in bed talking to me almost like nothing had been wrong. I knew then that even with this disease, we would be able to make it. And we have. Here’s some good proof… today Andrew is a counselor at the same camp he attended all those summers ago.”
Disclaimer: The experiences and suggestions recounted in these articles are not intended as medical advice, and they are not necessarily the “typical” experiences of families with a child who has type 1 diabetes. These situations are unique to the families depicted. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of type 1 diabetes and the frequency of blood glucose monitoring.