Babies and young children sleep and drink a lot. But if your child is suddenly much drowsier or thirstier than usual, it could be a symptom of type 1 diabetes mellitus.
Type 1 diabetes used to be called juvenile diabetes as it would commonly affect young children. A child could develop diabetes as an infant or later, as a toddler or teen, though it would often appear after age five. Some people, however, might not get it until their late 30s.
According to the National Database on Children and Adolescents with Diabetes, type 1 is the most common form of childhood diabetes in Malaysia, accounting for 73-77% of all cases in young people.
There is a common misconception that this type of diabetes comes from overconsumption of sugar. For most, it is an autoimmune disease in which the pancreas stops producing insulin, either partially or entirely. (Type 2 diabetes is often linked to obesity and is commonly seen in adults.)
“Despite the differences, it’s important to remember that both conditions are serious,” said Dr Ch’ng Tong Wooi, consultant paediatrician and paediatric endocrinologist at a medical centre in Subang Jaya, Selangor.
“Type 1 and type 2 diabetes can lead to serious health complications such as cardiovascular disease, kidney failure, vision loss, and problems with wound healing.”
‘4T’ early signs
The initial symptoms of type 1 diabetes can sometimes be easy to miss because young children are unable to tell if they have low or high blood sugar. To help parents along, here are the “4T” early signs to look out for:
Toilet: Frequent urination – infants and toddlers may experience wet diapers or bedwetting more frequently.
Thirsty: Ongoing extreme thirst that is seemingly unquenchable.
Tired: Extreme fatigue.
Thinness: Losing weight or looking thinner than usual.
Other warning signs can include a sweet, fruity odour on the breath; breathing problems; and sudden vision changes, which can be a late sign of high sugar. These symptoms tend to come on relatively quickly over a few days or weeks, especially in children.
“If you notice any symptoms, do not delay bringing your child to the doctor,” Ch’ng advised. “An easy and fast blood glucose check is all it takes to diagnose type 1 diabetes, and early detection can dramatically reduce the risk of diabetic ketoacidosis, a serious and life-threatening complication.”
How to care for your child
Having to raise a child with a chronic disease can be difficult: there will be nights spent awake checking their blood sugar level, and days worrying about their snacktimes at school.
Although it is currently not possible to prevent type 1 diabetes, there are ways to manage symptoms. According to Ch’ng, a child’s diabetes care plan has four basic parts:
- Take insulin.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
- Check blood sugar levels at least four times daily.
- Get regular physical activity.
“Beyond the practical to-dos, parents are also a crucial support system,” Ch’ng added. “Your child is counting on you to guide them physically, like helping them through an insulin shot, and emotionally, like discussing how he or she feels about having a new and lasting condition.
“To show your support, get involved in daily care and start having open conversations after your child’s diagnosis. This will set a strong foundation that will allow you to weather any challenges that might happen in the future.”