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What causes type 1 diabetes in children?

girl smiling playing in an indoor tent with her pajamas and slippers on

Type 1 diabetes in children is most commonly caused by an autoimmune disorder where their immune system mistakenly attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. This causes a decrease, or complete absence, of insulin which leads to abnormally high blood sugar levels.

After eating, the amount of glucose (blood sugar) in our blood goes up. This alerts the pancreas, which then sends insulin into the body to allow the glucose to move from the blood into the cells. Without insulin, this cannot happen, resulting in high blood sugar levels. The exact cause of this autoimmune response if not fully understood, but it’s believed to potentially involve genetic and environmental factors.

What causes diabetes in children?

Children can develop both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, although type 2 is typically more common in adults than children.

Diabetes can have various causes, but in children, type 1 diabetes is the most common form. It is a chronic (long-lasting) health condition that affects how the body turns food into energy. Insulin is a hormone, made by the pancreas, that helps glucose get into your cells to be used for energy. Children with diabetes cannot produce enough insulin, leading to high blood sugar (glucose) levels. Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed during childhood and is also known as juvenile diabetes. More often, it appears after the age of 5, but it is possible for infants and toddlers to be diagnosed.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body becomes resistant to insulin or does not produce enough insulin to maintain normal blood sugar levels; this type is less common in children as they generally have higher metabolisms and are more physically active, which can help prevent the development of type 2 diabetes.

Why do diabetics have to worry about their feet?

Diabetics need to be cautious about their feet because high blood sugar levels can lead to nerve damage and blood vessel issues. This can result in decreased sensation and blood circulation to the feet, making them more prone to infections, injuries, and slow healing.

In children with diabetes, it's important to pay attention to their foot health as they are more susceptible to foot problems. Whilst a good foot care routine is beneficial to all children, regardless of whether they have diabetes or not, children with this disease are known to be more susceptible to developing foot problems.

A good foot care routine will help identify any potential cause for concern quickly, allowing you to resolve them before they become an issue.

Below are a couple of tips that you can take to help:

  1. Inspect your child’s feet regularly. Check their feet daily for any cuts, blisters, redness or swelling. Although older children can do this themselves, younger children may need help. We find that bath-time or bedtime is a good chance to check as it can easily become part of their bedtime routine.

  2. Practice good hygiene. Encourage your child to keep their feet clean and dry. Use mild soap and warm water, and make sure to thoroughly dry the feet - especially between the toes!

  3. Moisturise the feet. Apply a moisturiser to keep the skin on their feet soft and prevent dryness. However, it’s best to avoid applying moisturiser between the toes, as excessive moisture in that area has the potential to increase the risk of fungal foot infections.

  4. Wear suitable footwear. Ensure your child wears comfortable, well-fitting shoes and socks. Avoid tight or restrictive footwear and look for shoes with cushioning and support to protect the feet from injuries. If you’re not sure on your child’s shoe size, having a handy measure-at-home tool around the house is ideal.

  5. Regular foot exams. Typically, if your child has diabetes then their healthcare provider performs a comprehensive foot exam at least once a year. They will assess nerve function, blood circulation, and identify any potential issues. They can also provide additional advice, or clarity, on what you can do to help care for your child’s feet if you’re unsure.

How to spot diabetes in a child

Spotting diabetes in a child can be challenging as the symptoms may not be very specific. However, common signs include excessive thirst, frequent urination, unexplained weight loss, fatigue, and increased hunger. If your child has a couple of these symptoms, chances are it’s no cause for concern. However, if you notice a lot of these symptoms in your child, or they’ve lasted for more than two weeks, it's recommended you visit your GP to find out what’s causing the problem.

Remember, caring for children’s feet as well as proper foot health care is important for all children - regardless of whether they have diabetes or not. However, for children with diabetes, it becomes even more crucial to prevent complications and keep their feet as healthy as possible.