Separating Diabetes Myths and Facts

Article at a Glance

  • Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. The condition occurs when the body slows or stops its production of insulin.
  • There are more than 1 million Americans living with type 1 diabetes, with about 40,000 more diagnosed each year.
  • Diabetes isn’t to be taken lightly, but the majority of diabetic children lead normal lives and enjoy all the same milestones as other kids.

When Sharon’s daughter, Bailey, was 5 years old, she began wetting the bed. She had been potty-trained for more than two years, so her mother was surprised, but she assumed it was a phase. Next, when Bailey began having accidents in the daytime, Sharon’s confusion turned into concern. She started tallying Bailey’s water consumption and realized her daughter was returning to the fridge for dozens of cups of water per day — more than 100 ounces in all.

Sharon made an appointment with Bailey’s pediatrician, who asked about her symptoms. As he asked questions, Sharon realized there were other symptoms she’d missed or written off as something else. Bailey had lost weight, and lately, her moods seemed more volatile.

Their pediatrician ordered urine and blood tests. From there, Sharon says, “Life became a blur.”

Bailey was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, also referred to as Juvenile Diabetes. Mother and daughter spent a week at Primary Children’s Medical Center, where the staff could stabilize Bailey’s blood sugar levels and offer Sharon a crash course in parenting a diabetic child.

As Sharon learned, type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. The condition results when the body slows or stops its production of insulin. Bailey didn’t develop diabetes because of anything her parents allowed her to eat, and she wouldn’t grow out of her condition. But, after leaving the hospital, Sharon says that she often came up against these and many other misconceptions when explaining Bailey’s condition to friends, family, and teachers.

Diabetes Facts and Myths

Myth 1: Children get type 1 diabetes and adults get type 2.

Fact: People of all ages can develop either type of diabetes, but it is more common for people with type 1 diabetes to be diagnosed as children and for type 2 diabetes to manifest in adulthood. However, in recent years the number of children and teens diagnosed with type 2 diabetes has been rising.

Myth 2: Eating too many sweets causes diabetes.

Fact: While it is true that eating a high-sugar diet is unhealthy, sugar consumption doesn’t trigger diabetes. Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes involve the body’s inability to balance blood sugar and insulin levels, but the underlying biological cause of each type of diabetes is different.

Type 1 diabetes is a result of the immune system destroying the insulin-secreting cells of the pancreas. This eventually causes the pancreas to slow or stop the production of insulin.

The causes of type 2 diabetes include both genetics and lifestyle. Being overweight and sedentary increases the risk, as does family history. But unlike type 1 diabetes, type 2 often begins with the body’s cells becoming more resistant to insulin, rather than the pancreas becoming less able to produce insulin. The pancreas tries to compensate by producing more insulin, which can allow the condition to go undetected for months or years.

Myth 3: Juvenile diabetes runs in families. If I don’t have it, neither will my kids.

Fact: Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. It’s possible your family health history includes other types of autoimmune diseases. Thyroid disease, celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus are just a few examples of autoimmune diseases that can appear in the family health history of a child with type 1 diabetes.

As with other genetic traits, like curly hair or green eyes, diabetic children can have siblings that are unaffected. They can also grow up to have their own children who never develop diabetes.

Myth 4: People with diabetes cannot live a normal life.

Fact: This is the primary fear most parents have when their child is first diagnosed, but it isn’t true. At first, managing diabetes can feel all-consuming. Testing blood sugar, counting carbohydrates and administering insulin quickly become second nature. With time and practice, most diabetic kids learn to manage these tasks with little or no help from mom and dad.

According to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund, there are more than 1 million Americans living with type 1 diabetes, with about 40,000 more diagnosed each year.

Diabetes isn’t to be taken lightly. It does require vigilance and management, but the majority of diabetic children lead normal lives and enjoy all the same milestones as other kids.

Myth 5: Diabetic kids are always sick.

Fact: A person with diabetes is not more likely to catch a cold or flu virus if their blood sugars are well controlled, but once they have caught something, an illness can make blood sugar levels drop or rise quickly. Our bodies use more energy stores to fight infection and heal from injury than they do when healthy. Parents of diabetic kids should pay more attention to their children’s blood sugar levels when they are ill and take precautions to avoid illness whenever possible. Pediatricians often recommend a pneumococcal vaccine, as well as a yearly flu shot.

Today, Bailey is a tall, articulate teen. She long ago memorized the carb count of all her favorite foods and administers her own insulin with a pump, which she wears clipped to her jeans. Sharon says that, while Bailey’s diagnosis felt devastating during that first year, it also taught their family a great deal about their own strength and about proactively managing their health.

Symptoms of type 1 diabetes can happen suddenly and include:

• Extreme thirst and frequent urination (or bedwetting)
• Fruity or sweet breath
• Lethargy, drowsiness, and even unconsciousness
• Irritability or other sudden mood changes
• Unexplained weight loss, even while appetite has increased
• Abrupt changes in vision
• Heavy, rapid, or labored breathing
• Nausea, vomiting, or belly pain

Call your doctor immediately if your child presents any of these symptoms.

More information on diabetes:
Diabetes Overview (AAP)
Support for parents of diabetic children

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