Diabetes > Diabetes Mellitus > Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus

What is Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus?

Type 1 diabetes is the more intensive of the two main types. The root issue is that the body can produce no natural insulin, or only very low levels of it.

Insulin transfers glucose (or sugar) from the bloodstream and into the cells of the body so that it can be used as fuel. Type 1 is the less common form of diabetes mellitus affecting around 5 - 15% of diabetics, but can prove fatal unless regular insulin injections are taken, hence why it is also known as insulin-dependent diabetes.

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Type 1 diabetes is also sometimes referred to as juvenile diabetes or early-onset diabetes because it usually develops at a young age, as opposed to Type 2 which is also known as Mature Onset Diabetes. However, type 1 is not always diagnosed in childhood and can occur at a later age.

The Cause of Type 1

It is an autoimmune disease meaning that the body's immune system attacks its own healthy tissue. The tissue in question is the beta cells of the pancreas, which produce the body's insulin.

As these get attacked, insulin levels fall, eventually to nothing, and the sugar levels in the blood rocket.

To combat this, diabetics with Type 1 have to inject manufactured insulin to handle the glucose levels of their blood.

It is unknown exactly what causes the immune system to target the body's own cells, but it is possibly related to viruses and their effects on the body, specifically of the enterovirus Coxsackie B serotype, according to some recent research.

They also know that there is a genetic risk factor for Type 1 diabetes, meaning people who have a family history of diabetes mellitus are more likely to develop an auto-immune reaction. For example, if a close relative (parent or sibling) of yours has Type 1 diabetes, you have roughly a 6% chance of developing the condition yourself. In contrast, the risk for people who do not have a close relative with Type 1 diabetes is around 0.4%.

Another known cause of Type 1 diabetes is a rare condition called pancreatitis, which causes your pancreas to become inflamed, resulting in severe damage to the insulin-producing cells.

Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes

There are three main, noticeable and common symptoms of both types of diabetes which are often referred to as the 3Ps. These are:

These all indicate that blood sugar levels might be too high, but they are not always obvious, so you should be aware of the other symptoms and complications.

In young adults and especially in children, the 3Ps can develop more quickly.

Complications of Type 1 Diabetes

Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to dangers and complications in many parts of the body in both the short and long term.


Hypoglycemia is the state in which a person's blood sugar has dropped too low. It has several symptoms, some of which are very severe. These include:

  • Sweating
  • Dizzyness or vertigo
  • Fatigue
  • Going pale
  • Hunger
  • Higher heart rate
  • Confusion
  • Convulsion
  • Extreme cases - loss of consciousness and falling into a coma

See the full hypoglycemia page for a full explanation, and what to do if you or someone you know experiences it.

Heart and Blood Vessel Disease

Diabetes increases the risk of cardiovascular and heart conditions, such as angina, heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure and a narrowing of arteries known as atherosclerosis.

Nerve Damage

Excess sugar can damage the tiny blood vessels in your body, especially in the legs, that take blood to and from the nerves. As a result, a feeling of tingling, pain, or numbness may spread from the toes and fingers upwards, depending on the severity.

Eyes Damage

Again, the tiny blood vessels can be damaged in your eyes leading to retinopathy, and in extreme cases, blindness.


Type 1s can be more susceptible to infections of the skin and gums.

Bone problems (Osteoporosis)

Diabetes can cause bones to have a lower calcium density than normal, a process known as osteoporosis. This makes the bones brittle, a condition that is usually associated with older women.

Kidney Damage (nephropathy)

The hundreds of tiny blood vessels in the kidneys can be damaged, possibly leading to total kidney failure if the diabetes is left un-controlled. This could lead to dialysis or the need of a transplant.

Treatment of Type 1 Diabetes

Currently, there is no cure for diabetes. In order to deal with the Blood Sugar Levels (BSL), people with Type 1 have to manually inject insulin and track their BSL throughout the day.

Injecting insulin is basically taking the job of the pancreas and doing it manually, as the pancreas cannot do it itself.

Keeping on top of your BSL in this way can be daunting, and even the most rigorous of people can lose control. But there are several lifestyles and attitudes that can help you stay on top of your diabetes.


Establishing a routine is one of the most helpful ways of staying on top of BSL that are swinging out of control.

Having a glucose level that seems inconsistent and confusing can stop you planning ahead and leave you only able to react to low or high BSLs after they have dipped or soared. Many people will be familiar with the feeling of lagging behind their diabetes, and being led, rather than being in control.

It is easier to make sense of test results if there are fewer factors acting on your BSLs. Eating and injecting at the same time every day can help to stabilise unruly glucose levels and you will be able to begin to predict and control your glucose levels.

Test Regularly

Testing is not pleasant but it is necessary in order to stay in control. The more often you test, the more information you will know and can learn from. Leaving a long period of time between tests means there are more factors that could have affected your glucose levels.

Testing more often and regularly will indicate more clearly what has triggered your glucose levels to drop or rise, so that you know how to deal with it in future.

For example, testing after every meal will show you the effect that that meal has had on your BSL. Testing only after your last meal of the day will only show you that day's change, and it will not be evident what exactly caused any spikes or dips experienced. However, be aware that there will be a lag time between eating and your blood glucose levels rising.

Armed with this knowledge you can plan ahead and predict any action you will need to take to counter any changes.

Recording and Reviewing

Taking extra special care to record down what you eat, how much, and any exercise that you do alongside your glucose levels, will give you a clear indication of what daily activities have what effect on your blood sugars and consequently what actions to take to correct it.

This is especially important in times when you have lost some of your control as it can help you to get back on track.

It all sounds and feels like hard work, but sticking at it and working it into a routine will give you the knowledge you need to control your diabetes, and you will very quickly start to feel the difference as your confidence starts to build back up.

Who is at risk of Type 1

Anybody can have Type 1 diabetes, but some people are more prone and more at risk of it than others.

There are only theories at the moment, but there are some factors that are thought to increase the risk of getting Type 1.


There are certain genes that are thought to increase the risk of Type 1, and there is a definite increased risk of it developing in people whose parents or siblings already have it.


Trends show that there is a higher proportion of people with Type 1 further away from the equator.

Vitamin D

There are correlations in Vitamin D deficiency and diabetes of both types. However, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest what levels, if any, of Vitamin D in the body can help to prevent diabetes.

Viral Exposure

It is thought that the autoimmune response in the body that causes diabetes Type 1 has links to certain viruses, particularly the coxsackie B enterovirus. There is little you can do to avoid viruses completely, but a vaccine for the viruses thought to be most closely linked with diabetes could be the key to preventing Type 1 altogether.

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