When Your Child Has Type 1 Diabetes

If your child suddenly grows weak, tired, and nauseated, the youngster probably has the flu or some other virus. But the symptoms could also be warning signs of type 1 diabetes.

"The symptoms of the flu and the onset of juvenile diabetes can be similar, so it's important parents carefully monitor changes in the symptoms and take the child to their pediatrician if they continue," says Robert A. Goldstein, M.D., Ph.D., senior vice president of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International in New York. "When type 1 diabetes goes untreated, a child can slip into a diabetic coma, which is a very serious condition."

Although there's no cure for type 1 diabetes, the disease can be managed. Dr. Goldstein offers the following suggestions on care.

Don't blame yourself

"Parents need to know that they have done nothing wrong and that there is nothing they could have done that could have prevented type 1 diabetes from occurring," says Dr. Goldstein. Genetics are thought to play a role in the development of this disease, but it's believed a virus or another factor triggers its onset.

Do your research

Learn about the disease and its management. After a diagnosis, work closely with your health care provider to learn about the disease and create an effective management plan.

"Type 1 diabetes changes the lives of an entire family," Dr. Goldstein says. "It's important everyone involved in the child's care understands what the disease does and how it's treated. This team process helps the management plan go much smoother."

Treatment involves insulin injections up to four times a day and monitoring of blood sugar levels during the day. The levels are checked by pricking an approved area of skin and placing a drop of blood on a special paper that is then drawn into the meter. The meter reads a color change on the paper and calculates the blood sugar level. The level is displayed on the meter’s screen.

Make a plan

Create an effective diet and exercise regimen. Managing blood sugar levels is vital to the treatment of type 1 diabetes. In addition to insulin, food and exercise are key elements of diabetes control. Daily blood sugar monitoring will tell you if your child is experiencing low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) or high blood sugar (hyperglycemia).

To maintain steady sugar levels, a child with type 1 diabetes should eat a well-balanced diet with enough calories to prevent hypoglycemia but not enough calories to cause an excessive and abnormal increase in blood glucose.

"Difficulties in glucose management are often due to failure to follow a proper diet," Dr. Goldstein says. "Insulin adjustment is based on the child's diet and activity level."

Children with diabetes should engage in normal childhood activities, but exercise combined with insulin can make sugar levels fall. To prevent this, have a regular meal schedule and keep in mind that your child may need an extra snack before exercising. A child with type 1 diabetes may also require snacks throughout the day to maintain balanced sugar levels. If sugar levels do dip, the child may need to drink fruit juice or soda immediately.

Include your child

Involve the child in the treatment process. Allowing the child to participate as much as he or she can helps build a youngster's self-confidence.

"Getting kids involved in their treatment plans early on can give them a great sense of independence," Dr. Goldstein says. "Making their treatments seem routine helps keep them from feeling they're different from other children."

Stay up to date

Ask your doctor about new treatment options. Insulin injections can now be given with a pen or wand-like instrument, making the process easier and quicker.

"Even conventional insulin syringes have been improved and are less painful than those used in the past," Dr. Goldstein says. "Older children can use insulin pumps that make it possible to deliver insulin adjusted to match their individual activity level and their diet."

Newer glucose monitors require a smaller blood sample, are easier to use, and store data that can be downloaded to a computer for evaluation or presentation to your doctor. With some newer machines, blood may be obtained from areas other than the fingertips.

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