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Man testing his blood glucose level with a glucometer.

Man testing his blood glucose level with a glucometer.
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Type 1 diabetes

4-minute read

Diabetes is a condition that occurs when the body cannot maintain healthy levels of sugar (glucose) in the blood. Type 2 diabetes develops when the body does not make enough insulin or does not use it well. Type 1 diabetes is diabetes caused by the immune system attacking and destroying the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.

Although there is currently no cure, type 1 diabetes can be managed with insulin and by having a healthy lifestyle.

What is type 1 diabetes?

The pancreas is an organ below and behind the stomach that produces the hormone insulin. Insulin moves glucose into the cells to be stored and used for energy.

In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas is unable to produce insulin. Without insulin, glucose stays in the blood, causing the blood glucose level to be higher than normal. This then causes the problems associated with diabetes.

What causes type 1 diabetes?

The exact cause of type 1 diabetes is not known. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition where the body’s immune system attacks the pancreas cells. It cannot be prevented, even by adopting a healthy lifestyle.

The risk of type 1 diabetes can be passed down through families. If you have a parent, brother or sister with type 1 diabetes, you have a higher chance of developing type 1 than someone who is not related to a person who has the condition.

The onset of type 1 diabetes occurs most frequently in people under 30 years, however almost half of all people who develop the condition are diagnosed over the age of 30.

Type 1 diabetes symptoms

If you have high blood glucose, you may experience the following symptoms of type 1 diabetes, which you can remember with the four 'Ts':

  • thirst - being very thirsty (and possibly hungry)
  • toilet - urinating more often
  • thinner - experiencing unexplained weight loss
  • tired - feeling unusually tired

Diabetic ketoacidosis symptoms

If your blood glucose is very high, you may experience a serious emergency condition called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). In diabetic ketoacidosis, your body burns fat instead of glucose for energy, producing by-products called ketones.

Symptoms include:

  • fast breathing
  • breath that smells like nail polish remover
  • stomach pain
  • flushed cheeks
  • vomiting
  • dehydration

DKA is a serious condition that requires immediate assessment. If someone, who you know has diabetes, becomes confused or unconscious, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

Type 1 diabetes diagnosis

If your doctor thinks you may have diabetes, you will probably need to have a blood test. You may be asked to take a fasting blood glucose test, where you don’t eat for 8 hours prior to the test, or a random blood glucose test, where you don’t need to fast. You may also need to have an oral glucose tolerance test where you have blood glucose tests after you drink a sugary drink.

You may also be asked to have your urine tested for ketones.

Type 1 diabetes complications

Treating type 1 diabetes is important to prevent long-term complications, such as:

Are you at risk?

Find out if you're at risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes or kidney disease using our Risk Checker.

Type 1 diabetes treatments

If you have type 1 diabetes, you will need insulin replacement, through injections or an insulin pump, to control your blood glucose levels. Having a healthy diet and being physically active can also help control your blood glucose levels and improve your health.

Living with type 1 diabetes

Being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes can be overwhelming. However, besides using insulin treatment, you can successfully manage diabetes by:

  • learning to control and monitor your blood glucose levels
  • following a healthy diet and being physically active
  • having regular health checks by your doctor, including blood pressure and kidney function
  • having a podiatrist monitor your feet for ulcers and other problems
  • having an optometrist or ophthalmologist check your eye health regularly

You can join the National Diabetes Services Scheme (NDSS) to access support services, including free or subsidised products. Visit Diabetes Australia for information and resources.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2018

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