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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 cells in the body’s own pancreas. (Because the body attacks itself, type 1 diabetes is called an autoimmune disease.)

The job of the pancreas is to convert the food we eat into energy for our cells. This is where insulin comes in. Insulin is the hormone, produced by the pancreas, that helps sugar (glucose) from the food we eat get into the cells. 

What happens when you eat food

When we eat food—particularly carbohydrates like bread, rice, and pasta, as well as sweets like candy and cookies—it is digested into sugar called glucose. It’s this glucose that enters the bloodstream to circulate through the body. Once glucose is in the bloodstream, the pancreas begins releasing 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. In 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 vs. type 2 diabetes

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

People under the age of 40—and particularly children—are more likely to get type 1 diabetes. This is why it’s important for families at high risk to get screened early for type 1 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease where your pancreas stops producing enough insulin.

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. If insulin is the key that helps blood sugar or glucose get into the cells, this key in type 2 diabetes is faulty. It sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t work to open the door to the cells.

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. 

Symptoms of type 1 diabetes

Many people don’t experience many, if any, symptoms when the disease is in its early stages (stage 1 or stage 2). But symptoms do appear when you have stage 3 diabetes.

Once the disease has progressed to stage 3, you may experience one or more of these symptoms.

Treatment for type 1 diabetes

There may 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.

Once you reach stage 3, you’ll need to take insulin shots—or use an insulin pump that you wear to release timed insulin into the body—every day for the rest of your life.