May 5, 2022
5 min. read

What is Type 1 Diabetes? Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment


Given that 37.3 million Americans—about 1 in 10—have been diagnosed with diabetes, chances are you know a friend, family member, or someone close to you who is navigating the disease. Type 1 diabetes is a serious condition that requires a lot of work to manage, in order to stay healthy and prevent serious complications.

But the best way to prevent or manage any harmful health condition is to be informed about that condition. Armed with the correct resources and information, you or your loved ones will be able to learn how to properly manage and live with Type 1 diabetes, starting with the information below. 

What is Type 1 diabetes? 

Type 1 diabetes is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin. Insulin is an important hormone that regulates the amount of sugar, or glucose, in the blood. 

In the absence of diabetes, the body breaks down the food you eat into glucose, which is the body’s main source of energy. When glucose enters the bloodstream, it signals to the pancreas to release insulin, which in turn helps glucose in your blood enter your muscle, fat and liver cells so they can use it for energy or store it for later use. As glucose enters the body’s cells and the level of glucose in the bloodstream decreases, this signals to the pancreas to stop producing insulin.  

However, in Type 1 diabetes, there is not enough insulin (if any) released by the pancreas. Too much sugar (glucose) then builds up in the blood, and your body can’t use the food you eat for energy. If not treated with synthetic insulin, this can cause serious health complications. 

What is the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes? 

While Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes both lead to high blood sugar, they are different in a few distinct ways. 

In Type 1 diabetes, your pancreas doesn’t make any insulin as a result of an autoimmune reaction. However, Type 2 diabetes, your pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin or it doesn’t always use insulin the way in which it should. Genetic factors, as well as lifestyle factors, like obesity and a lack of exercise, can contribute to the development of Type 2 diabetes. 

What are the symptoms of Type 1 diabetes? 

As your pancreas makes less and less insulin, the symptoms of Type 1 diabetes get progressively worse over time. 

Symptoms of Type 1 diabetes include:

  • Excessive thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Excessive hunger
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision
  • Slow healing of cuts and sores
  • Vaginal yeast infections

Untreated Type 1 diabetes can be life-threatening due to a complication called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). If you experience any combination of the following symptoms, seek emergency care: 

  • Fruity-smelling breath
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal (stomach) pain
  • Rapid breathing
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Loss of consciousness

How is Type 1 diabetes diagnosed? 

To diagnose Type 1 diabetes, your doctor will typically order the following tests

  • Blood glucose tests. A blood glucose test will measure the amount of sugar in your blood. They may ask you to do the test either with or without fasting. If the results show that you have very high blood sugar, that usually is an indication of Type 1 diabetes. 
  • Glycosylated hemoglobin test (A1c). The A1c test measures your average blood sugar level over the past 2 or 3 months. If your blood glucose test indicates that you have high blood sugar, they will typically ask for an A1c test. 
  • Antibody test. The antibody test is a blood test that can determine if you have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. While the presence of certain antibodies indicates Type 1 diabetes, they usually aren’t present in people who have Type 2 diabetes.

In addition, to assess your overall health and check to see if you have diabetic ketoacidosis, your provider may also order a basic metabolic panel, urinalysis, and arterial blood gas. 

How is Type 1 diabetes treated? 

The goal of treatment for Type 1 diabetes is to keep blood sugar levels as close to normal as possible. In general, your daytime blood sugar levels before meals should stay between 80 and 130 mg/dL (4.44 to 7.2 mmol/L) and your after-meal numbers should be no higher than 180 mg/dL (10 mmol/L) two hours after eating.

Treatment for Type 1 diabetes involves taking insulin, carbohydrate, fat and protein counting, frequent blood sugar monitoring, eating healthy foods, and exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight. 

Insulin therapy 

People with Type 1 diabetes need synthetic insulin every day up to multiple times a day. 

Types of insulin include: 

  • Short-acting (regular) insulin
  • Rapid-acting insulin
  • Intermediate-acting (NPH) insulin
  • Long-acting insulin

Because insulin can’t be taken orally, it needs to be taken either through injections or a pump. 

Healthy eating and monitoring carbohydrates 

While there’s no such thing as a diabetes diet, it’s still important to focus your diet on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and other nutritious, low-fat, high-fiber foods. 

People with Type 1 diabetes will need to learn how to count the amount of carbohydrates in the foods you eat so that you can give yourself enough insulin to properly metabolize those carbohydrates. You might want to consider meeting with a dietician who can help you accomplish this. 

Blood sugar monitoring 

You may need to check and record your blood sugar level at least four times a day, depending on the type of insulin therapy you decide to proceed with. Ideally, you should test your blood sugar levels before meals and snacks, before bed, before exercising or driving, and if you suspect you have low blood sugar. 


Anyone with or without diabetes needs regular exercise. With your doctor’s approval, find activities you enjoy and aim for at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week. 

Remember, however, the exercise will lower your blood sugar. When starting a new kind of exercise, try to check your blood sugar more often and adjust your meal plan or insulin doses to compensate. 

Diabetes can be a challenging condition to manage properly, not least because you need to stay consistent throughout your lifetime. If not properly managed, complications can develop—in fact, 50% of people with Type 1 diabetes will develop a serious complication over their lifetime. But with proper management and by staying in close contact with your endocrinologist and other healthcare providers, you can lead a happy and healthy life. 


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