Back

What is type 1 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong disease that prevents your body from making an important hormone called insulin.

When you have this disease, your body’s immune system—which is meant to fight off harmful invaders like viruses and bacteria—begins attacking insulin-producing beta cells in the body’s pancreas.

Insulin is the hormone that helps sugar or glucose from the food we eat get into the body’s cells for energy.

Symptoms of type 1 diabetes

There are three stages of type 1 diabetes. In its earliest stage, stage 1, you may not notice any symptoms. Getting screened early on can detect if you have type 1 diabetes long before symptoms start to develop.

Once the disease progresses into stages 2 and 3, you may start to experience symptoms that include:

Click below to learn about the different stages:

What causes type 1 diabetes?

The exact cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown, but if you have type 1 diabetes in your family you’re more likely to develop it.

Certain common viruses, like enteroviruses, have been linked to type 1 diabetes, too. One common enterovirus that’s been implicated in type 1 diabetes is the coxsackievirus, though other viruses may trigger it too.

People under the age of 40, particularly children, are also more likely to get type 1 diabetes. Talk to your doctor about your or your child’s risk of developing it and whether you should get screened to catch it early on.

Why the body needs insulin

When we eat food, particularly foods high in carbohydrates like bread, pasta, and cookies, it’s digested into sugar called glucose. Once glucose enters the bloodstream, the pancreas starts to release insulin.

Insulin is necessary for the glucose in the bloodstream to enter the cells, where it can be used to fuel the body. This fuel is necessary to think, move, and do everything that’s required for the activities we do on a daily basis.

Think of insulin like a key. This key is needed to unlock the door to the cells to allow glucose to enter. For people with type 1 diabetes in stage 3, there’s no working key.

The result is that this blood sugar, or glucose, cannot get into the cells. Instead, the glucose builds up in the bloodstream because it has nowhere to go.

This is why people in later stages of type 1 diabetes have high blood sugar levels when they take a blood test. These high blood sugar levels are called hyperglycemia.

Type 1 diabetes vs. type 2 diabetes

About 37.3 million Americans have diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But about 1 in 5 of these people with diabetes don’t even know they have it.

There are two types: type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease where your pancreas stops producing enough insulin. This happens in the final stage of diabetes, called stage 3.

Type 2 diabetes is not an autoimmune disease. It’s a disease where the pancreas still produces insulin but the body is not able to use it effectively.

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes need to be treated early to prevent high blood sugar levels. Long-term high blood sugar levels can cause life-threatening problems like damage to the organs, nerves, and blood vessels.

It’s important to know that even the slightest increase in blood sugar—as a result of having either type of diabetes—can cause damage in the body.

This is why catching diabetes early, and getting treated early, is so important.

Treatment for type 1 diabetes

Taking insulin is the treatment necessary for type 1 diabetes. There may also be a way to delay or prevent the onset of type 1 diabetes in certain at-risk patients. Talk to your doctor about your options.