Definition & Overview

Juvenile diabetes, now commonly referred to as type 1 diabetes, is a rare form of diabetes characterized by the failure of the pancreas to produce insulin due to abnormalities in the immune system. It is estimated that only 5% of diabetes patients have this specific form.

Insulin is a hormone that the body uses to convert glucose into energy, which the cells require to remain healthy. The pancreas is tasked to produce insulin. However, in the case of juvenile diabetes, the immune system attacks cells in the pancreas, preventing it from accomplishing its tasks. Without insulin, blood sugar levels rise, causing a wide variety of complications, such as damage to other organs.

Juvenile diabetes is called as such because it usually begins in children and young adults, but the disorder can affect anybody of any age. Children with the disease can live normal lives with proper care and treatment. However, treatment for the condition is often a precarious balancing act.

Cause of Condition

Scientist, researchers, and doctors know that juvenile diabetes is caused by abnormalities in the immune system. However, they are yet to establish the reason why the immune system attacks the pancreas. The possibilities are the presence of harmful bacteria or viruses and the genetic structure of a person.

It’s important to realize the difference between type 1 (juvenile diabetes) and type 2 diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, the islets in the pancreas, which are responsible for producing insulin, are not functioning. In type 2 diabetes, these islets are functioning but either the body has developed resistance to insulin or the pancreas is not producing enough.

Regardless of the type, the results are the same – the organs and tissues experience sugar starvation and begin to malfunction. Additionally, blood sugar levels rise causing life-threatening complications.

Juvenile diabetes is impossible to avoid or prevent because it is either inherited or the patient has certain genes that cause the development of the condition.

Researchers also believe that juvenile diabetes may be triggered by certain factors, such as viruses, a child’s diet, and low vitamin D levels.

If left untreated, juvenile diabetes can cause a wide variety of complications. Some of the most common are:

  • Heart problems – Diabetes is known to cause cardiovascular problems, such as coronary artery disease, atherosclerosis, heart attack, and stroke.

  • Nephropathy (damage to the kidneys) – Kidneys filter waste from the blood. Diabetes damages the filters in the kidneys resulting in kidney failure, which is irreversible. The only solution is dialysis and eventually, a kidney transplant.

  • Nerve damage – Diabetes restricts the normal blood flow to the limbs eventually causing nerve damage. The child will usually complain of tingling sensations in the arms or legs, which can progress to severe pain.

Key Symptoms

Children who develop juvenile diabetes have a tendency to display signs and symptoms of the disease just days or weeks after its onset. Some of the most common symptoms are:

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Weight loss
  • Yeast infections in girls
  • Extreme hunger and thirst
  • Need to urinate frequently
  • Vision problems
  • Abdominal pain
  • Heavy breathing
  • Vomiting and nausea

The following signs are indications of an emergency. You should seek emergency medical care immediately if your child experiences one or more of the following:

  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Rapid breathing
  • Confusion accompanied by convulsions or shaking
  • A fruity breath smell

Who to See & Types of Treatment Available

If your child displays any of the above symptoms, other than those that require emergency treatment, you should consult you family doctor for diagnosis and treatment. If your child displays symptoms that require emergency services do not hesitate to call for emergency medical care or bring your child to the nearest hospital’s emergency department.

In an emergency, your child will be stabilized before performing an in-depth diagnosis of the problem. Make sure that you describe all of the symptoms in detail so emergency health workers can provide the most appropriate treatment.

If it is not an emergency and you consult your family doctor, a physical test and other laboratory tests will be conducted to diagnose the condition. If your doctor suspects that your child may have diabetes, further tests will be performed to confirm the diagnosis.

Your child will first undergo a random blood sugar test. This is essentially a blood sugar test taken at different intervals. However, a random blood sugar test may provide a false negative result. If the doctor still suspects diabetes despite negative results, your child will need to undergo more tests.

The test that will likely follow is a glycated hemoglobin A1C test, or a fasting blood sugar test. In a glycated hemoglobin test, the level of blood sugar attached to hemoglobin is measured. The test will be performed several times. High test results on at least two tests will confirm diabetes.

In a fasting blood sugar test, your child will be instructed to refrain from eating or drinking anything the night before the test. On the day of the test, the blood sugar levels will be measured. If the results are high (>126mg/dl) your child will be diagnosed with diabetes.

A diagnosis of juvenile diabetes will mean that your child will need to visit the doctor on a regular basis for close monitoring.

It’s important to understand that there is no cure for this condition. Patients will need to undergo treatment for the rest of their lives. Treatment includes insulin injections and constant blood sugar monitoring. Care should be taken when injecting insulin. Too much or too little insulin will result in hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia, respectively. Some patient prefers insulin pumps rather than manual injections. The insulin pump automatically monitors blood sugar levels and injects the right amount the body needs.

Aside from insulin injections and medications, your child will also need to eat a healthy diet. Medications and a healthy lifestyle will help your child function normally.


  • Alemzadeh R, Ali O. Diabetes mellitus. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW III, et al., eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 583.

  • American Diabetes Association. Standards of medical care in diabetes -- 2014. Diabetes Care. 2014;37:S14-S80.

  • Eisenbarth GS, Buse JB. Type 1 diabetes mellitus. In: Melmed S, Polonsky KS, Larsen PR, Kronenberg HM, eds. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. 12th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 32.

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