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How to recognise the signs and symptoms of Type 1 diabetes and what's involved in getting diagnosed

Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in childhood or adolescence - knowing what your child is going through can make all the difference.

By: Donna Fleming

When Sharon Anderson took her daughter Chloe to the doctor because the usually fit and active 12-year-old was suddenly excessively tired, she thought the diagnosis might be one of anaemia, and extra iron would do the trick.

It was a huge shock to be told Chloe has type 1 – or juvenile – diabetes, and now has to inject herself with insulin.

"I didn't really know anything about diabetes in kids," says Sharon. "I thought it was a disease older people got because of bad eating habits."

Unlike type 2 diabetes, which can result from lifestyle choices, type 1 is an autoimmune disease in which the body mistakenly destroys the cells that produce insulin. As a result, the body produces little or no insulin, which means glucose can't be moved from the blood to cells for energy.

As a result, it builds up in the bloodstream, where it can cause life-threatening complications. It's not known why some children develop type 1 diabetes and there's no way of preventing it.

The symptoms are very similar to type 2 diabetes and include:
• Increased thirst and frequent urination
• Extreme hunger
• Weight loss
• Fatigue
• Irritability or behaviour changes
• Blurred vision
• Yeast infections
• Fruity-smelling breath.

Type 1 diabetes is diagnosed with blood tests and your child will need to regularly see a doctor or nurse to help them manage the disease and check things like kidney function.

Treatment is life-long and can seem overwhelming at first. But for many kids, it just becomes part of their daily routine. Their blood sugar levels need to be checked at least four times a day using a small finger prick test to obtain a drop of blood, which is then put on a testing strip and inserted into a small glucose meter. This gives a reading of blood sugar levels.

Children and young people with type 1 diabetes usually need to be injected with insulin two or more times a day. This can seem daunting but diabetes educators will help them – or a parent or caregiver if they are unable to do it themselves – to learn how to do it. How much insulin they need can depend on what they have eaten and their activity levels.

It is also very important for anyone with type 1 diabetes to eat regular meals and choose healthy food. There are dietitians available to help with specialist advice. Physical activity is also crucial because it helps to prevent glucose building up in the bloodstream and causing damage to vessels. Keeping cholesterol down, controlling blood pressure and staying a healthy weight is also vital.

Sharon says it has taken Chloe a while, but she is now getting the hang of monitoring her blood sugar and can inject herself without any problems. "It was a huge deal at first, but now it is just part of her daily routine, like cleaning her teeth. She's going to be doing this for the rest of her life, so it is really important to have a positive attitude and just cope with it."