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Diabetes in Children

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that there are about 4 million people with Type 1 diabetes and 30 million people with Type 2 diabetes in the United States (roughly 9.3% of the population). In North Carolina alone, diabetes is the 7th leading cause of death.

Below, we examine some of the common questions related to the prevalence of diabetes as it relates to children.

Diabetes in Children

At what age do you typically see children develop diabetes?

In children, the majority of diabetes cases we see involve Type 1 diabetes. Roughly 45 percent of Type 1 diabetes cases in children occur before the age of ten. Type 1 diabetes, however, can occur in adults – even as late as 50-60 years of age.

The two most common ages for children to develop Type 1 diabetes are:

  • 6 years old
  • 10 – 14 years old

For children with Type 2 diabetes, almost all cases in overweight or obese children occur after 10 years of age, and in children who have already gone through puberty.

Type 1 vs. Type 2 Diabetes: What’s the Difference?

Type 1 Diabetes

  • Type 1 diabetes accounts for 2/3 of all diabetes in children under the age of 19.
  • Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder that causes the pancreas to stop making the hormone, insulin. Without insulin, the body is unable to use sugar from the foods we eat as an energy source.
  • Certain individuals may be more likely to develop Type 1 diabetes based on their genes, but we do not fully understand why some people get Type 1 diabetes while others do not.
  • Type 1 diabetes is NOT caused by weighing too much or eating too much sugar.
  • At this time, Type 1 diabetes can NOT be prevented.

Type 2 Diabetes

  • Unlike Type 1 diabetes, Type 2 diabetes is more likely to occur in adults than children.
  • Type 2 diabetes usually occurs in individuals who weigh more than they should, do not exercise regularly, drink a lot of sugary liquids (soda, juice, sweet tea, etc.), and do not eat a healthy diet.
  • Type 2 diabetes  is more likely to occur in some families and in certain ethnic groups.
  • The main problem in Type 2 diabetes is insulin resistance, which means that the body makes insulin but doesn’t respond to it very well.
  • Some individuals with Type 2 diabetes can “burn out” the pancreas so that it no longer makes enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels within the normal range.

Group of elementary school kids running in a school corridor

Diabetes Becoming More Common Among Children

Both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are becoming more common among children. Recent studies indicate that both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes in children increased 20 – 30 percent between 2001 – 2009.

Because we do not fully understand what causes diabetes (especially Type 1 diabetes), we do not know why it is becoming more common. For Type 2 diabetes, the increasing number of overweight and obese children is a major contributing factor to this increased frequency.

Signs That Your Child May Be Diabetic

Only your pediatrician can diagnose your child as diabetic. However, there are classic signs of diabetes that occur when the body is not making enough insulin. These symptoms include:

  • Increased thirst
  • Increased urination
  • New bed wetting
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Blurry vision

If it is not detected early, undiagnosed diabetes may present in the following symptoms as well:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Altered consciousness

If your child develops any of these symptoms, he/she should be immediately evaluated by a pediatrician. Because most children have Type 1 diabetes, they will develop the symptoms listed above (which are associated with a lack of insulin). Because most adults have Type 2 diabetes, they often do not have any symptoms initially.

Girl testing her blood glucose level

Risk Factors of Diabetes in Children

The only known risk factor for Type 1 diabetes is having a family member (especially a sibling or parent) with Type 1 diabetes.

How is diabetes treated in children?

Because most children have Type 1 diabetes, in which the body no longer makes insulin, the only treatment is insulin. Insulin gets broken down by stomach acids, so it has to be given into the fatty layer of the skin through small, daily injections or an insulin pump.

Can diabetes be prevented in children, or are certain children simply predisposed?

Type 1 diabetes CANNOT be prevented at this time. We know that some individuals are at greater risk of developing diabetes (ex: those with a sibling or parent with Type 1 diabetes). However, we still  do not understand why some children ultimately develop Type 1 diabetes and others do not.

At this time, we are unable to stop the immune system from attacking the pancreas, which is what causes the body to stop making insulin over time. Therefore, children cannot “grow out of” Type 1 diabetes.

Related Resources:

About Hillary Lockemer, MD

Dr. Lockemer is a pediatric endocrinologist with WakeMed Physician Practices – Pediatric Endocrinology. She is board certified in pediatrics and pediatric endocrinology and has been involved in numerous research studies related to pediatric endocrinology.

About Bill Lagarde, MD

Dr. Lagarde serves as director of WakeMed Physician Practices – Pediatric Endocrinology. He is board certified in both General Pediatrics and Pediatric Endocrinology.