What is type 1 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes (formerly known as Insulin Dependant Diabetes or Juvenile Diabetes) occurs when the pancreas is unable to make enough insulin. Insulin is a hormone that acts as a key to let glucose from the food we eat pass from the blood stream into the cells to provide energy.

While type 1 diabetes affects people of any age, it usually occurs in children and young adults. Type 1 diabetes is the less common form of diabetes, with just 10 to 15 per cent of all people with diabetes having this type.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. The pancreas cannot produce enough insulin because the cells that make insulin have been destroyed by the body’s own immune system.

What is the cause of Type 1 diabetes?

We don’t yet know the exact cause of type 1 diabetes, but we do know that some people carry genes which might make them more likely to get type 1 diabetes. However it can only occur when something such as a viral infection triggers the immune system to destroy the insulin-making cells in the pancreas. This is called an autoimmune reaction.

How is type 1 diabetes treated?

Insulin must be replaced so insulin injections are needed to control blood glucose levels. Therefore, people with type 1 diabetes must have insulin every day to live.

The goal of diabetes management is to keep blood glucose levels as close to the normal range as possible as this reduces the risk of developing long term complications.   This can be achieved by insulin injections, blood glucose monitoring as well as balancing food intake and physical activity.

At this stage type 1 diabetes can’t be prevented or cured, although there is a great deal of research being done.  For example, the INIT II trial.

What are the symptoms?

In diabetes, glucose stays in the blood, causing the blood glucose level to become abnormally high. Symptoms may include:

  • Being very thirsty
  • Being very tired
  • Passing lots of urine
  • Losing weight
  • Feeling generally unwell
  • Being dehydrated

When there is insufficient insulin to meet the body’s needs, the body starts to breakdown fat for energy. Ketones  are the by-product of fat break down which are toxic to the body in very large amounts.  If type 1 diabetes is not detected early, a condition known as Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA) can develop. This is very serious so urgent medical attention in hospital and treatment with insulin and fluids is required.

Signs of DKA

  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Deep, rapid breathing
  • Fruity smelling breath
  • Drowsiness

Find out about DKA and managing type 1 diabetes during illness

Type 1 diabetes statistics

  • There are over 130,000 people in Australia living with type 1 diabetes
  • More than 50 per cent of people develop type 1 diabetes as adults
  • 80 per cent of people with type 1 diabetes have no family history of the condition
  • Type 1 diabetes can run in families with an eight per cent risk for brothers, sisters and children also getting type 1 diabetes

More information

Find out about type 1 diabetes information, services, support and other activities or phone the Diabetes Info Line on 1300 136 588.

References: 'Incidence of type 1 diabetes in Australia', 2000-2006 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Canberra, 2008 & diabetes statistics factsheet (2004) Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation