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What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease in which the body is unable to produce or use insulin properly. When this occurs, glucose remains in the bloodstream rather than being absorbed by cells and used for energy. Glucose levels in the blood can then rise dangerously high (hyperglycemia) and, over time, cause damage to major organs and systems in the body such as the kidneys and eyes, and nerves and blood vessels.

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is referred to as an immune-mediated or autoimmune disease. It was once called juvenile diabetes, because the onset of the disease typically occurs in the childhood or adolescent years. However, adults can also develop it. Individuals with Type 1 diabetes must take injections of insulin or use an insulin pump to stay alive.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the islet cells in the pancreas are damaged and no longer produce insulin. This happens when the immune system in the body, for reasons not clearly understood, attacks its own cells.

Risk factors for Type 1 diabetes

Approximately 5-10 percent of all people with diabetes in the U.S. have Type 1. Risk factors for this disease include:

  • A parent with Type 1 diabetes
  • A sibling with Type 1 diabetes
  • Being Caucasian—Caucasians are more at risk than people from other ethnic groups

Signs and symptoms

  • Unusual thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Extreme hunger
  • Unusual weight loss
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Unexplained nausea and vomiting

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is referred to as adult-onset diabetes. This hereditary disorder occurs when the production of insulin isn’t sufficient to overcome a difficulty the body has in properly using insulin. This difficulty is called insulin resistance. 

Type 2 diabetes is treated with diet, exercise and, if necessary, medications. It accounts for 90-95 percent of all cases of diabetes and the incidence is rising rapidly, even in children.

Risk factors for Type 2 diabetes

People with Type 2 diabetes represent roughly 90-95 percent of all cases of diabetes in the U.S. Risk factors for this disease include:

  • Being over age 45
  • Having a family history of the disease
  • Being overweight
  • Not exercising regularly
  • Being of a certain racial or ethnic group (African American, Hispanic/Latino American, Native American or Asian American/Pacific Islander)
  • Having a low HDL (high-density lipoprotein) or high triglycerides
  • Having had gestational diabetes during pregnancy

Signs and symptoms

  • Any of the Type 1 symptoms except unexplained nausea and vomiting
  • Blurred vision
  • Cuts/bruises that take time to heal
  • Tingling/numbness in the hands or feet
  • Recurring skin, gum or bladder infections

Note: Some people experience no symptoms with Type 2 diabetes.

Gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes can occur in women during pregnancy, usually after the 20th week. The condition is caused by pregnancy hormones that lead to insulin resistance. When the body’s insulin production isn’t sufficient to overcome the resistance, glucose levels rise.

The condition poses risks to the developing fetus as the mother’s blood, with its high levels of glucose and insulin, circulates throughout its system. Babies born to mothers with gestational diabetes can be overweight—over nine pounds—because the mother’s high blood glucose and insulin levels cause them to gain weight. The extra weight can put the baby at risk for obesity and for developing diabetes later in life. In addition, because the baby’s body has become accustomed to extra blood glucose and insulin, its blood sugar can drop too low after birth.

Treatment for women with gestational diabetes is aimed toward keeping blood sugar levels at the levels a pregnant woman would have who doesn’t have gestational diabetes. To accomplish this goal, a registered dietitian will work with you to develop a meal plan suited to your special needs. Your doctor may also recommend that you check your blood sugar levels every day and may prescribe insulin. (Unlike many drugs, insulin doesn’t cross the placental barrier to your baby.)

In the majority of cases, gestational diabetes disappears when the woman’s pregnancy ends. But as many as 40 percent of these women will eventually develop type 2 diabetes. In some cases, the pregnancy unveils underlying diabetes that the woman wasn’t aware of.

Risk factors for gestational diabetes

An estimated 2-5 percent of pregnant women will develop gestational diabetes. Risk factors for gestational diabetes include:

  • Overweight before the pregnancy
  • Over the age of 25
  • Family history of diabetes
  • Are African American, Hispanic/Latino American, Native American, Asian American or Pacific Islander
  • Having had a child weighing more than 9 pounds
  • Having had a stillbirth of unknown cause

Diabetes caused from other factors

Diabetes may also be related to other factors such as injury to or disease of the pancreas, medications (such as steroids), surgery, infections and malnutrition.

Find an endocrinologist near you

If you have questions or concerns about diabetes symptoms or risk factors, schedule an appointment with a diabetes specialist.