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Diabetes in children - diagnosis and treatment

The most common type of diabetes in children is type 1 diabetes, caused by the inability of the pancreas to produce insulin. Insulin acts to allow glucose to move from the bloodstream into the cells of the body, where it is needed for energy. Without insulin, glucose builds up in the blood and can cause damage at various sites around the body. The cause of diabetes in children is not yet clear, but it is thought that a combination of genetic factors and environmental triggers may play a part.


What are the symptoms of diabetes in children?

Some symptoms of diabetes in children can include excessive thirst, frequent urination and tiredness. Your child may appear to be hungrier than usual, while at the same time losing weight. Diabetes in children may also cause other symptoms such as abdominal pains, headaches or changes in behaviour. Diabetes is a life-long condition and if not controlled can lead to complications including cardiovascular disease, kidney damage, damage to the eyes, and nerve damage. It is therefore crucial to detect diabetes in children as early as possible and to monitor it carefully.


Diagnosis is usually made by a blood test to measure the level of glucose in your child’s blood before and/or after food.


How is diabetes in children treated?

The chronic nature of diabetes means that treatment must be managed at home or school on a daily basis. It is important for the families and carers of children with diabetes to receive specialist support and education in diabetes medication and management. You will need to regularly monitor your child’s blood glucose levels using a finger prick test.


Most cases of diabetes in children will require insulin treatment given via injections. There are several different types of insulin which are given at different times during the day. Older children may prefer to wear an insulin pump, which delivers insulin continuously without the need for frequent injections. Insulin pump therapy involves tailoring your child’s insulin dose to match the carbohydrate content of each meal, and so requires highly specialised medical support and education. This can be obtained from the NHS or from paediatricians in the private sector.


One of the main problems with insulin treatment for diabetes in children is that it can sometime lead to low blood glucose (hypoglycaemia, or ‘hypo’), which can be caused by too much insulin, too little food, or too much exercise. Hypos cause symptoms including dizziness, shaking, sweating and, if not treated immediately, loss of consciousness. It is therefore important to regularly monitor blood glucose levels, food intake and insulin, and to learn how to balance physical activity with carbohydrate-rich snacks and drinks.


As your child grows, they will be able to take more control of their own monitoring and treatment. You and your child may want to seek further help and advice or attend courses designed to educate about the management of insulin, diet and activity levels for optimal blood glucose control. 


What other endocrine problems can occur in children?

Diabetes in children is not the only endocrine problem that can occur. Other illnesses can result from problems with the pituitary, thyroid and adrenal glands or a growth hormone deficiency, including problems with growth, puberty and sexual development. All can be assessed and treated privately in paediatric units.