November is Diabetes Awareness Month, commemorating the birthday of Dr. Frederick Banting, who discovered insulin in 1921. It serves as an annual opportunity to raise awareness about a prevalent chronic childhood condition. This year, diabetes detection takes on heightened significance. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a surge in the number of children diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a condition in which the body cannot properly use or produce insulin.
Whether a child has developed type 1, the most common type in children, or type 2 diabetes, recognizing the signs and symptoms of diabetes is crucial and necessitates immediate medical attention, according to Dr. Brynn Marks, MD, MSHPEd, a pediatric endocrinologist and Director of Technology for the Diabetes Center for Children (DCC) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).
Dr. Marks emphasizes, “When the body is unable to produce sufficient insulin, it can lead to rapid illness. Insulin plays a critical role in utilizing the food we consume for energy. In its absence, the body resorts to breaking down fat or muscle for alternative sources of fuel, resulting in illness.”
What Is Type 1 Diabetes?
In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas produces little or no insulin, the hormone responsible for facilitating the uptake of sugar (glucose) from the blood into cells to be used as energy. Without daily insulin, children with type 1 diabetes are at risk of heart, kidney, eye, nerve, and circulatory system damage. It is imperative to seek help promptly, as the onset of type 1 diabetes is swift.
Diet and exercise cannot cure or prevent type 1 diabetes. There may be a genetic predisposition in some families that triggers the autoimmune system to attack and destroy insulin-producing cells. The exact reason why people get type 1 diabetes is still unknown. Between 2003 and 2015, the latest data available from the Centers for Disease Control, the overall rate of type 1 diabetes in individuals under 19 years old saw a slight increase from 20 to 23 cases per 100,000 young people.
What Is Type 2 Diabetes?
Recent years have witnessed an uptick in type 2 diabetes cases among children and adolescents. In type 2 diabetes, the body produces insulin but becomes resistant to its effects. With insufficient insulin to transport glucose from the blood into cells for energy, blood sugar levels rise, leading to the hallmark symptoms of diabetes. Factors such as reduced physical activity and increasing obesity contribute to this disease. Adopting a healthier lifestyle can delay or prevent type 2 diabetes. Similar to type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes can result in complications affecting the eyes, heart, nerves, kidneys, and more.
Common Signs And Symptoms Of Diabetes
Dr. Marks notes that the most common symptoms overlap between both types of diabetes, typically appearing within a few weeks or months. These symptoms include:
- Increased thirst
- Frequent urination
- Unexplained weight loss
- Heightened appetite
- Blurred vision
- Persistent nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Excessive drowsiness or fatigue
- Irritability and mood swings
- Yeast infections in girls
Recognizing these symptoms can be more challenging in very young children who may not express discomfort, especially if they are not yet toilet trained. It is crucial to be aware of other common factors in infants, such as weight loss, fussiness, and significantly increased thirst.
Insufficient insulin in the body triggers the breakdown of fat or muscle, leading to the production of an alternative fuel source called ketones. If this process continues, it can result in a dangerous condition known as diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA).
Living with type 1 diabetes will make obtaining personal insurance products more challenging, says Matt Schmidt, an insurance agent with Diabetes 365. “Insurance companies will always view you as a higher risk, if you have type 1 diabetes. There is no way around this. However, if you can show companies that your condition is well controlled, that you exercise regularly, and live a healthy lifestyle you can qualify for discounted rates. Since life insurance for diabetics is more expensive to begin with, having 12% to 15% discounts over the live of your policy will lead to significant savings.”
Type 2 Diabetes And The COVID-19 Connection
At CHOP, children displaying diabetes symptoms undergo blood sugar level testing and a comprehensive examination. CHOP’s Diabetes Center for Children saw a doubling of confirmed cases of type 2 diabetes from 2019, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, to 2021.
This unexpected surge in cases may be attributed to lifestyle changes during the pandemic. With limited opportunities for exercise due to pandemic restrictions and virtual schooling, children became less physically active. Additionally, many children lacked access to the balanced meals typically available in school cafeterias.
Dr. Marks reflects, “We witnessed a significant increase in type 2 diabetes cases during the pandemic, which was quite remarkable. The most reassuring news is that cases have decreased with the return to in-person school.”
Becoming Informed During National Diabetes Month
Preventing type 2 diabetes is crucial as cases continue to rise among both children and adults. Risk factors for diabetes onset include inactivity, obesity, or a family history of type 2 diabetes. Lifestyle choices play a pivotal role in reducing this risk. Healthy habits encompass:
- Consistently consuming nutritious foods
- Avoiding overeating
- Incorporating whole fruits and vegetables into the diet
- Steering clear of processed foods and snacks
- Increasing physical activity, ideally 30 minutes, five days a week
- Opting for water over sugary beverages
Fostering a healthier lifestyle by following these guidelines can help deter the onset of type 2 diabetes. CHOP is committed to assisting individuals and families in maintaining these habits for long-term health. If concerns about your child’s risk of diabetes arise, consult your pediatrician or primary care provider. In the event of a diabetes diagnosis, CHOP’s Diabetes Center for Children stands as the nation’s leading pediatric endocrinology and diabetes program, ranked No. 1 by U.S. News & World Report. Their comprehensive treatment program is dedicated to the well-being of your child and the education of your family, guiding you towards a healthy and fulfilling life.