What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease in which the body cannot control the amount of fuel in the blood. Just as a car is powered by petrol, the body is powered by glucose, which is extracted from food in the gastrointestinal tract. Insulin normally gets the glucose from the bloodstream to where it is needed in the cells (the body's engines). Type 1 and type 2 diabetes are both caused by problems with insulin.

Type 1 diabetes (used to be called insulin dependent diabetes or juvenile diabetes) is diagnosed when the pancreas stops making insulin. It is an autoimmune disease in which the body's immune system attacks the pancreas destroying the cells that make insulin. The pancreas then stops making insulin and the body cannot control the amount of glucose in the blood.

In Type 2 diabetes (used to be called non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus or maturity onset diabetes) the body becomes resistant to insulin, meaning that there is insulin but it is not working very well. If this happens, the body cannot control the amount of glucose in the blood.

Type 1 diabetes is one of the most common chronic conditions diagnosed in children. It can develop in a child of any age, including infants and toddlers. Type 1 diabetes often develops quickly and the child may have very high, potentially life-threatening, blood glucose levels at diagnosis.

Type 2 diabetes is also being increasingly diagnosed in children in a growing number of countries. In the United States, up to 1 in 3 new cases of diabetes diagnosed in youth younger than 18 is type 2.

Video resources

  • What happens in diabetes (Source: kidshealth.org)

  • Professor Bumblebee´s Guide to type 1 diabetes (Source: Australian Diabetes Council)

Children and diabetes: the facts

Source: IDF Diabetes Atlas Fifth Edition, International Diabetes Federation, 2012