Do you know the signs of type 1 diabetes? The most dangerous time in the life of a diabetic child is prior to diagnosis when the symptoms are often confused with the flu. Tragically, children sometimes die or become brain damaged by the time anyone realizes that they have diabetes. Even doctors can miss that a child has diabetes until it’s too late.

Learn the warning signs. Type 1 diabetes is one of the most common chronic illnesses of children. The majority–90%–of children diagnosed with type 1 diabetes have no family history, so all parents and healthcare providers need to recognize the symptoms. Every year, the number of children getting diabetes goes up. No one knows why.

If you see any of these signs and symptoms in your child, see your healthcare provider and make sure that your child is tested for type 1 diabetes. If your child is showing signs of DKA (see symptoms below), go to the ER immediately. There is no time to waste. At this stage, children are often transported by ambulance or helicopter and sometimes are placed on life support. Let’s not lose one more child to this disease due to a missed diagnosis. Let the memory of Mary Kathryn and the tragic loss of this 8 year old girl help save another child’s life. See the International Diabetes Federation’s World Diabetes Day Web page and their campaign, A Life for a Child. No child should die of diabetes.

Signs of Type 1 Diabetes

  1. Excessive thirstmay be overlooked in warm weather.

  2. Frequent urination—toilet-trained children often begin wetting the bed or getting up during the night to urinate. Babies can soak through diapers.

  3. Increased hunger, even after eating

  4. Loss of weightoften the most noticeable symptom. Any weight loss should be evaluated by a doctor.

  5. Fruity-smelling breath or acetone-smelling breath—sign that ketones are being produced. Risk of DKA, a life-threatening condition

  6. Changes in vision, blurry vision

As type 1 diabetes develops, the amount of insulin being secreted reduces so that sugar can't be used and builds up in the blood. The body tries to flush it out by drinking and urinating. Sugar will be present in the urine. Because energy can't be used, the child will be extremely hungry, so there may be increased appetite. Eating doesn’t provide energy, so the child will use up any stores of fat. Muscles will shrink as they're broken down to supply energy. You may see sudden weight loss. Children may become emotional and moody from high blood sugar. Sugar can also build up in the lenses of the eyes, causing blurry vision.

As the diabetes progresses, the breakdown of fat for energy produces ketones in the blood, which can become acidic, causing a very dangerous condition called diabetic ketoacidosis or DKA. The child may show symptoms of DKA, in addition to the symptoms of diabetes.

Signs of Diabetic Ketoacidosis or DKA — Seek emergency care immediately

  1. Abdominal pain—can be severe

  2. Breath smells fruity or like wine or acetone

  3. Drowsiness, lethargy

  4. Nausea and vomiting

  5. Signs of dehydration

  6. Heavy, labored breathing or rapid breathing

  7. Thready pulse

  8. Stupor, unconsciousness

  9. Coma

These symptoms can develop very quickly and are life threatening.

Note: Although type 1 diabetes usually develops in children and young adults, it can occur at any age. If an adult shows these symptoms, it could be type 1 diabetes, and you should seek medical care.

Save a Life:  Know the Signs of Type 1 Diabetes

Mary Kathryn St. John

On February 1st of this year, our 6 year old daughter, Mary Kathryn, died of Sudden Onset Juvenile Diabetes (SOJD). She was an otherwise healthy child, with no family history of diabetes. When she started exhibiting symptoms that very closely mimicked stomach flu, an illness that my older son had just a month before, I thought that she had contracted the same thing. As it would turn out, she actually had type 1 diabetes. There was only about 18 elapsed hours from the time of her diagnosis until the time that she died...this is a very sudden and insidious disease of which parents need to be made aware. 

This disease can typically mimic other illnesses, so a patient might present at a doctor's office with what appears to be something totally benign and unalarming, to be misdiagnosed and then present to an ER at a later date with diabetic ketoacidosis, a very serious and critical condition. It is commonly recognized and acknowledged by the medical community that first-time presentations of SOJD is in an ER setting to be immediately followed up by a stay in ICU to stabilize the patient. Most patients live, but there are others, like my daughter that do not.  If your child displays any of the signs and symptoms, please do not hesitate to take them to the doctor.

~Deborah St. John

Read our story. There need never be another tragedy like the one of Mary Kathryn and our family.