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What Is Juvenile Diabetes?

Juvenile diabetes affects roughly three million people in the United States alone. Also known as Type 1 diabetes, over thirty thousand new cases are diagnosed each year, with half of those cases being diagnosed in children. An additional two million Americans are estimated to suffer from undiagnosed Type 1 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder that destroys insulin producing cells in the pancreas. Unlike the more common Type 2 diabetes, Type 1 cannot be avoided through lifestyle changes. Juvenile diabetes is largely an inherited condition. As its name suggests, onset of this disease is typically early in life, with most cases being diagnosed before the age of twenty-five.

Symptoms of juvenile diabetes include extreme thirst, increased appetite, sudden loss of weight, lethargy, and vision changes. Onset of these symptoms is usually rapid and severe. Other symptoms may include skin changes, particularly dry, itchy skin and darkened patches on the back of the neck and in skin folds; dry mouth, chronic dehydration, headache, tingling hands and feet, and poor wound healing. A fruity or chemical odor on the breath, muscle spasms, and deep, rapid breathing indicate diabetic ketoacidosis, a life-threatening condition that quickly leads to coma and death. In many cases, patients with Type 1 diabetes are diagnosed when their symptoms have become life-threatening.

Treatment for Type 1 diabetes almost always involves the use of insulin injections. Dietary and lifestyle changes may be used to reduce the amount of insulin needed. For example, exercise makes muscle cells more sensitive to insulin, resulting in more rapid uptake of sugars from the bloodstream. Eating a high fiber, controlled carbohydrate diet decreases the need for insulin, as well.

Because diabetes increases the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, renal failure, and other diseases, newly diagnosed patients are often referred to a nutritionist. A nutritionist will help plan a healthy diet, offer meal suggestions, and teach patients to adjust their eating habits according to their blood sugar levels. Diabetes educators and coaches may also be recommended, to teach patients to effectively manage their condition at home.

In addition to blood sugar control, Type 1 diabetics must also learn to manage side effects of both their disease and its treatment. Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, may result from too much insulin, strenuous activity, or poor diet. Patients must learn to recognize the symptoms of hypoglycemia and how to treat it immediately to avoid life-threatening emergencies. Other common complications of diabetes include gum disease, tooth decay, yeast infections, and decreased immunity to bacterial infections. These complications can usually be managed or prevented with simple lifestyle changes and regular medical care.

Diabetes may also complicate other medical conditions, such as thyroid disorders or pregnancy. Women with Type 1 diabetes who become pregnant should notify their doctor as soon as possible. Hormonal changes can affect their insulin needs, and high blood sugar during pregnancy will affect the growth and development of the fetus. After birth, the child will need to be monitored for low blood sugar and jaundice. Women with Type 1 diabetes are at higher risk for pre-eclampsia, premature labor, and delivery problems. In some cases, doctors recommend scheduling a Caesarean delivery to avoid possible complications during labor and childbirth, although many diabetic women manage to have natural births with no problems at all. Each diabetic is different, so careful monitoring is vital to achieve the best possible outcome.

There is no cure for Type 1 diabetes. However, juvenile diabetes is no longer the death sentence it used to be. With proper medical care, patient involvement, and common sense, most diabetics can lead reasonably healthy, long lives.

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