Family Health|Kids and Teens
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Diabetes in Kids – Signs and Causes

Last Updated December 2023 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Kyle Bradford Jones, MD, FAAFP

What is diabetes in kids?

Diabetes—in kids and adults—is a long-lasting (chronic) condition that affects how your body turns sugars known as glucose into energy. Your body turns most of the food you eat into glucose and releases it into your blood stream. It does this using a hormone called insulin.

Diabetes is a disease that occurs when your body doesn’t make or use insulin properly. It causes too much glucose to build up in the blood. There are two types of diabetes.

Type 1 occurs when your body doesn’t produce any insulin. It is often called juvenile diabetes because it is typically diagnosed when people are young but can be diagnosed in adults, too. Until recently, this was the most common type of diabetes in children and teens. In more recent years there has been an increase in Type 2 diabetes in all age groups.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when your body doesn’t produce enough insulin or doesn’t use the insulin as it should. Doctors think the increase in Type 2 diabetes among kids is tied to an increase in having obesity and a drop in physical activity.

Signs of diabetes in kids

The symptoms of diabetes can vary from person to person. The early stages might have very few symptoms. You may not even be aware your child has the disease.

Common symptoms include:

  • Extreme hunger or thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue or drowsiness
  • Blurry vision
  • Slow-healing wounds, sores or bruises
  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet
  • Frequent or recurring skin, gum, bladder or vaginal yeast infections

What causes diabetes in kids?

The cause of diabetes depends on the type.

With type 1 diabetes, your child’s body doesn’t make insulin. This is because the immune system attacks and destroys the cells in the pancreas that make the insulin. Your child’s risk for type 1 diabetes is greater if one of their parents or one of their siblings has it.

With type 2 diabetes, the pancreas still makes insulin, but it doesn’t make enough. Type 2 diabetes can also happen if the cells in your child’s body can’t use insulin properly. This is called insulin resistance. This causes glucose (a form of sugar) to build up in the child’s blood instead of moving into the cells. Too much glucose in the blood can lead to health problems that damage the blood vessels, nerves, heart eyes and kidneys.

There are some risk factors for type 2 diabetes in kids. These include:

  • WeightObesity is the single most important risk factor for type 2 diabetes. The more overweight it is, the more resistant your body is to insulin. To figure out if your child is overweight, talk to their doctor.
  • Family history. Be sure to let your child’s doctor know if diabetes runs in the family. Their risk for diabetes is higher if a parent or sibling has diabetes.

How a diabetes in kids diagnosed?

After examining your child, discussing symptoms and going over their health history, your doctor may test for diabetes if they suspect your child is at risk. Testing can include:

  • Fasting blood sugar test. This test is usually done in the morning, after an 8-hour fast (not eating or drinking anything except water for 8 hours before the test). The blood test involves inserting a small needle into a vein in your child’s arm to withdraw blood. If your child’s blood sugar level is 126 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or higher, it suggests diabetes. Fasting blood sugar can also be measured with a finger stick, as long as only the glucose is being tested.
  • Random blood sugar test. This test measures the level of glucose in your child’s blood at any time of day. It doesn’t matter when they last ate. Combined with symptoms of diabetes, a blood glucose level of 200 mg/dL or higher indicates diabetes.
  • A1C blood test. This test provides information about a person’s average levels of blood glucose over the previous 3 months. The results are reported as a percentage. A normal A1C level is below 5.7%. If your A1C is higher than that, it means your blood sugar has been higher than normal. A test result between 5.7% and 6.4% indicates prediabetes. A result of 6.5% or above indicates diabetes.

Can diabetes in kids be prevented or avoided?

Type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented or avoided. There are some lifestyle changes that may help lower your child’s risk for type 2 diabetes:

  • Exercise and weight control. Exercising and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce your child’s risk of diabetes. Any amount of activity is better than none. Try to help your child exercise or move around for 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week.
  • Diet. A diet high in sugar and calories increases your child’s risk of diabetes. A poor diet can lead to obesity (another risk factor for diabetes) and other health problems.

Diabetes in kids treatment

The single most important thing your child can do is control their blood sugar level. They can do this by eating right, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, and, if needed, taking oral medicines or insulin.

  • Your child’s diet should include lots of complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains), fruits, and vegetables. It’s important to eat at least 3 meals per day and never skip a meal. Your child should eat at about the same time every day. This helps keep their insulin or medicine and sugar levels steady. Avoid empty calories, such as foods high in sugar and fat, or alcohol.
  • ExerciseExercising helps your child’s body use insulin and lower their blood sugar level. It also helps control their weight, gives them more energy, and is good for their overall health.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Losing excess weight and maintaining a healthy body weight will help insulin work better in your child’s body.
  • Make sure they take their medicine. If your child’s diabetes can’t be controlled with diet, exercise, and weight control, their doctor may recommend medicine or insulin. Most people who have type 2 diabetes start with an oral medicine (taken by mouth). Oral medicines can make their body produce more insulin. They also help their body use the insulin it makes more efficiently. Some people need to add insulin to their bodies with insulin injections, insulin pens, or insulin pumps. Make sure your child takes their medicines exactly as their doctor prescribes. Oral medicine doesn’t work for everyone. It isn’t effective in the treatment of type 1 diabetes. Insulin therapy is necessary for all people who have type 1 diabetes and for some people who have type 2 diabetes. If insulin is required, you’ll have to help give your child a shot or teach them to do it on their own (either with a syringe or with an insulin pen). Your doctor will tell you which kind of medicine your child should take and why.

Your doctor will test your child’s blood sugar every 3 months with an A1C test. Your doctor may ask you to test your child’s blood sugar on your own throughout the day if they are taking insulin or they are adjusting their medication. You will need to use a blood glucose monitor to check it on your own at home. This involves pricking your child’s finger for blood and putting a test strip in the blood. Putting the test strip in the monitor gets the results. Continuous glucose monitors (CGM) are also an option to help people with diabetes measure their blood glucose around the clock. A CGM is worn on the arm and offers real-time blood sugar levels you can check with an app on your phone.

If your child’s blood sugar gets too low, they might:

  • Feel tired
  • Experience problems with muscle coordination
  • Sweat
  • Have difficulty thinking or speaking clearly
  • Twitch
  • Feel like they’re going to faint
  • Become pale
  • Lose consciousness
  • Have a seizure

At the earliest sign of any of these symptoms, your child should eat or drink something that will raise their blood sugar fast. This could include candy, juice, milk, or raisins. If they don’t feel better in 15 minutes or if monitoring shows that their blood sugar level is still too low, they should eat or drink another item to raise their blood sugar fast. Always keep a supply of these items on hand for emergencies.

You may not know if your child’s blood sugar is too high unless you test it yourself. However, they may experience common symptoms such as frequent urination, extreme thirst, blurry vision, and feeling tired. Some factors unrelated to food can make your child’s blood sugar high. These includes not taking your insulin correctly, overeating at a meal, illness, having hormonal changes, and stress.

If your child’s blood sugar level is too high and they take insulin, they may need to take an extra dose of rapid- or short-acting insulin to return it to normal. Your doctor can tell you how much insulin they need to take to lower their blood sugar level.

Living with childhood diabetes

Your child can live a normal life with well-controlled diabetes. However, they have to pay attention to their diet, weight, exercise, and medicine. If you don’t control your diabetes, you will have too much glucose in your blood. This can lead to serious health problems, including heart disease and damage to the nerves and kidneys.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Is my child at risk for diabetes?
  • What can I do to lower their risk?
  • Will my child need to take insulin?
  • Can my child’s diabetes get worse even if we do everything right?


Mayo Clinic: Type 1 Diabetes in Children 

National Institute of Health: MedlinePlus: Diabetes in Children and Teens

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