Diabetes In Children – Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

Written by Sagari Gongala • 

Table Of Contents:

Janet was hungry. There was a sandwich on her plate, but she wouldn’t touch it before she got her insulin shot. Yes, insulin shot because the seven-year little girl has diabetes. Ever since she was diagnosed, she gets her daily dose of insulin before breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She is also watchful of what she eats.

It is traumatizing to imagine a tiny life suffer from diabetes, a condition which we often associate with adults. We consider it to be an age-related problem. But it is not. MomJunction tells you about the signs of diabetes in children, how you can identify them and manage the condition. Also, check our home remedies section at the end to know how you can make your child’s life easy with a little bit of extra effort.

Diabetes In Children

In the US alone, 1.93 in 1,000 children have Type I diabetes, while 0.24 in every 1,000 children have Type II diabetes. Over the past few years, the number of children and youth affected by diabetes has only increased.

Until a few years ago, children were only affected by Type I diabetes, which gave it the name Juvenile diabetes. Lately, they are being diagnosed with Type II diabetes, which is worrisome.

[ Read: Viral Infections In Children ]


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The three types of diabetes in children:

1. Type I diabetes:

In Type I diabetes, your child’s body cannot produce insulin, which is necessary for converting the sugars and carbohydrates into energy that the body needs. Insulin also helps store excess sugar in the body, for later use. But when the pancreas fails to produce this hormone, the sugar levels in the body increase, causing long-term complications.

Type I diabetes usually occurs when the beta cells in the pancreas are damaged or destroyed. More than 168,000 teens and children in the US have Type I diabetes (1).

2. Type II diabetes:

Type II diabetes is a progressive condition, wherein the body cannot respond to the insulin, or is resistant to it. In spite of the presence of the hormone, your child’s blood sugar levels increase. When left untreated, the disease can lead to blindness, heart diseases, and kidney failure. Over 19,000 children in the US have Type II diabetes.

The worrisome point is that Type II diabetes is likely to progress faster in teens than it does in adults (2).

3. Prediabetes:

Prediabetes is a condition where the blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not high enough to diagnose the condition as diabetes. Prediabetes, when controlled, can delay the onset of type I or type II diabetes.

A lot of times, both parents and doctors fail to identify the symptoms of diabetes and prediabetes in children, which worsens the condition and results in diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), which is the leading cause of mortality in kids with Type I diabetes.

Look for the causes that could lead to diabetes, and if you think your child is vulnerable take immediate action.

5 Causes Of Diabetes In Children

So, what causes the pancreas to stop making insulin? Why does our body suddenly decide it does not like insulin? Read to understand why children are affected by either type of diabetes.

  1. Hereditary: Diabetes is a genetic disease that can pass from the parent or ancestor to the child. Genes play a major role in Type I diabetes, but it is not very clear as to what triggers or causes the pancreas to stop making insulin altogether.
  1. Viral infections: When a child has a viral infection, the T-cells of the immune system produce antibodies to fight the virus. But if the virus has the same or similar antigens as the beta cells (which make insulin) in the pancreas, then the T-cells may attack the beta cells and damage or destroy them. This can trigger Type I diabetes in children.

Viruses that can turn the T cells against the beta cells include rotavirus, the B4 strain of the Coxsackie virus that causes gastrointestinal infections and those that cause mumps, and German measles.

  1. Cow’s milk: Some studies have shown that early exposure to cow’s milk can lead to the onset of diabetes in high-risk children who are susceptible to the disease genetically (3).
  1. Environmental factors: Food, lifestyle and other external factors can also result in the destruction of the beta cells in the pancreas, and trigger Type I diabetes in the individual. However, there is no accurate understanding of the extent to which these environmental factors can trigger diabetes.
  1. A sedentary lifestyle and obesity increase the risk of Type II diabetes, especially in high-risk children. When the child eats more and moves less, fewer calories are burnt, leading to an increase in the carbohydrate content in the body. The imbalance between the amount of glucose in the body and insulin produced can create insulin resistance and result in Type II diabetes.

Early detection can help in managing the illness better and preventing complications through the child’s growing years.

[ Read: Remedies For BedWetting In Children ]

13 Symptoms Of Diabetes In Children You Need To Look Out For

If not recognized and treated early on, diabetes can become a serious condition and even result in fatalities. Identify the following warning signs of diabetes in children and take immediate action. Your child may complain of:

  1. Extreme thirst and frequent urination
  2. Extreme weakness or tiredness, without any logical reason
  3. Pain in the abdomen
  4. Blurry vision
  5. Nausea and vomiting
  6. Changes in mood
  7. Wounds take time to heal and blood clots slowly
  8. Numbness or tingling sensation in the hands and feet
  9. Itching

In addition to these symptoms, the child may also have:

  1. Weight loss
  2. Decrease in body temperature
  3. Drop in blood pressure
  4. Rapid heart rate

It is not necessary that one or a few of these symptoms occur only due to diabetes. Visit a doctor, and he will diagnose your child’s condition.

Diagnosis Of Diabetes In Children

Your doctor may recommend the following diabetes tests and recommend a proper course of treatment.

  • A random blood sugar test is conducted to test the level of blood sugar in the child. A blood sample may be taken randomly and tested for sugar levels. If the results show a high level, the doctor may confirm the diagnosis. If not, they may recommend other tests to determine the pattern of blood sugar levels.
  • The glycated hemoglobin test is used to check for the child’s blood sugar levels over the past two or three months. It is also called the A1C test and measures the percentage of blood sugar in hemoglobin. If the A1C level is more than 6.5, it indicates diabetes.
  • Some doctors may also insist on a fasting blood sugar test, where they test the blood sample before your child eats anything that day.
  • To know the type of diabetes the child has, your doctor may also run a few tests to check for antibodies in the blood.

Once the expert identifies the problem, he would recommend the right course of treatment for the child. However, there is no permanent cure for diabetes.

[ Read: Thrush In Children ]

Treatment For Diabetes

If your child is diagnosed with diabetes or even prediabetes, there is no cure for it. Once diagnosed, children and parents will have to learn to live with the disease. Thankfully, there are treatment options, which make living with the illness less painful. The typical treatment options for diabetes include administration of insulin, along with significant lifestyle and diet changes.

1. Treatment for Type I diabetes:

Treatment for Type I diabetes includes lifelong monitoring and management of blood sugar through insulin, following a healthy lifestyle and diet. Once the beta cells in the pancreas are damaged, we cannot repair them or make them work.

Blood sugar monitoring is one of the most important things that your child has to learn after being diagnosed with Type I. They may have to monitor their blood sugar levels before every meal, or at least four times a day. Another way to monitor the blood sugar levels is through continuous glucose monitoring, but physicians do not recommend it unless the child has hyperglycemia unawareness.

The dosage of insulin that your child needs to get every day may change depending on the blood sugar levels, and also as they grow into adults. The lifestyle and the dietary habits may also affect the dosage of insulin that is required every day.

2. Treatment for Type II diabetes:

The treatment for Type II diabetes mostly depends on healthy lifestyle habits with some support from medication. Children with this type of diabetes are also required to monitor their blood sugar levels on a daily basis.

Regular blood sugar monitoring and recording is essential to determine the ideal diet and lifestyle for the child. The blood sugar levels can be affected by the:

  • Quality and quantity of food taken by the child.
  • Amount of physical activity he or she indulges in.
  • Medications prescribed by the doctor.
  • Illnesses such as cold, which can change the hormone levels in the body, causing sugar levels to rise or drop.

Healthy eating is imperative to control Type II diabetes in children. Create a healthy diet plan to keep the weight gain under control and provide the right kind of foods that do not spike or drop the blood sugar levels. A good idea would be to seek a dietician’s help to chalk out a healthy diet plan for the child. Know more on this below at Diet for diabetic children.

Regular physical activity or exercise can help in keeping the blood sugar levels under control for Type II diabetes. Doctors recommend at least 60 minutes of active time during the day.

When the children are affected early in their life, the chances of the future generations being affected by the disease are high. Therefore, take preventive measures from the moment you know that is something is wrong with the child’s blood sugar levels.

[ Read: Green Tea For Kids ]

Can You Prevent Diabetes?

Diabetes is an illness that you cannot always prevent. It is not your fault that the child has diabetes.

Type I diabetes is the result of damaged beta cells, which cannot be prevented. Researchers are still trying to figure out what exactly triggers the condition.

Type II diabetes, however, can sometimes be prevented. So even if your child has been diagnosed with prediabetes, and is in the high-risk category, you can prevent the onset of type II diabetes by following a few precautions:

1. Diet:

Watch what your child eats. Change their diet to include foods that can help manage blood sugar better and reduce the number of carbs and sugars. If your child’s BMI is higher than 25 (obese), the chances of developing diabetes are more. So strive to maintain a healthy BMI and keep the weight in check by replacing carbs with protein rich foods.

You can also start by reducing the portions of food every day. But do not cut down too much at once, make it a gradual change. One way to make sure they get enough is to serve everything in moderation.

2. Exercise:

If your child is overweight, or close to it, get him or her to exercise every day to reduce weight by at least 5 to 10%. Encourage your child to go for a jog or a run with you. Make them play outdoors, take them swimming, ride a bike with them, jump rope and dance. The more active they are, the better the chances of keeping diabetes away.

According to research, vitamin D can help protect the body from Type I diabetes. So, make sure your child has enough of it by making him exercise or play outdoors early in the morning.

Do not make the mistake of rushing your child into losing weight. Let the transition to the new diet and lifestyle be gradual and easy. Sudden changes can affect the child’s overall health and may even backfire.

[ Read: Natural Ways To Boost Children Immunity ]

Life-threatening Complications Of Diabetes

Diabetes is a serious illness that can lead to certain health complications (4) in the long-run. These complications don’t show up immediately. Especially with Type I diabetes, the problems develop gradually when the blood sugar levels are not in control. Some of these can also be life-threatening.

  • Diabetes can damage the blood vessel clusters that help in purifying the blood. Severe damage of these groups can also lead to kidney damage or failure.
  • Children with diabetes are at a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases like the coronary artery disease, stroke, heart attack and high blood pressure later in life.
  • Excess sugar in the body can damage the nerves, especially those that control the feet and legs
  • Nerve damage may also result in poor blood flow to the foot, which can lead to a loss of sensation in the feet. This makes it difficult to identify any cuts or blisters, which can result in an infection when untreated. Severe infections may require amputation of the foot or the leg.
  • Eye damage is yet another complication that diabetic children can develop later. A chance of blindness, although rare, exists if blood sugar is not controlled.
  • Diabetes also makes the child vulnerable to skin diseases caused by bacteria and fungus.
  • Studies have shown that hearing impairment is one of the common problems in diabetics.
  • People with Type II diabetes are at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

There is a chance of the diabetic child developing one or more of these complications, only if you fail to keep your child’s blood sugar in control.

3 Occasions When A Diabetic Child Needs Immediate Medical Attention

Call emergency medical services or take your kid to the nearest hospital in case of these complications.

1. Hypoglycemia (Low blood sugar)

Your child’s blood sugar goes below the normal level if he skips a meal or does not finish what’s on his plate. Sometimes, excess physical activity and insufficient food can also result in low blood sugar. Watch out for these signs:

  • Sweating
  • Dizziness and shakiness
  • Hunger
  • Drowsiness
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Confusion
  • Dramatic behavior (may look like he or she is overreacting)
  • Loses consciousness

Give your kid a glass of fruit juice, a glucose tablet or drink, candy or soda. Give him or her anything that contains 15 grams of sugar and test the blood sugar levels. If the sugar levels are back to normal, give the kid a neutralizing snack like a peanut butter sandwich to stabilize the glucose levels in the body.

It is a medical emergency if the child loses consciousness. He will need a shot of glucagon, a hormone that releases sugar into the blood.

2. Hyperglycemia (High blood sugar)

The child’s blood sugar levels can peak and go beyond the normal levels when they consume too many sweets or carbohydrate-rich food and are physically inactive. Signs of high blood sugar include:

  • Dry mouth and increased thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Blurred vision
  • Nausea
  • Yeast infection – young girls are more likely to get this; infants and toddlers may get it in the diaper area.
  • Fatigue

If you see any of these signs, check the child’s blood sugar levels. If the sugar level is higher than normal, make necessary changes to the child’s diet. But if the levels are consistently high, over a period, take the child to a doctor.

3. Diabetic Ketoacidosis

When the body does not get energy, it breaks down the fat in the body for strength. This can produce toxic acids called ketones. This condition can be a result of neglecting the early signs of diabetes. Signs of diabetic ketoacidosis in children are:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Dry flushed skin
  • Vomiting
  • Exhaustion
  • Breathing problems
  • Confusion
  • Your child’s breath may have a sweet, fruity smell

If your child is displaying these symptoms, use a ketone testing kit to check for excess ketones in his or her urine. If the test comes positive, take them to the doctor immediately.

[ Read: Causes Of Frequent Urination In Children ]

3 Ways To Take Care Of A Diabetic Child:

1. Diet for diabetic children:

There was a time when ‘diet’ for diabetic children meant a lot of restrictions on the type of foods the patient could eat. But that was at a time when insulin was not as easily available as it is now.

Like other children, diabetic children also need a healthy, balanced diet to keep their blood sugar levels in check and stay healthy. However, they need to watch the amount of carbohydrates and sugars they consume, as that can directly affect the glucose levels in the body. Read the labels before buying any foods for the child, to check the carbohydrate content. Carbs can be in the form of glucose or fructose.

The number of carbs your child eats should be directly proportional to the amount of time they spend being physically active so that the blood sugar levels are stable.

2. Healthy snacks

Besides healthy meals, give healthy snacks that help in regulating the sugar levels better. Here are a few examples of such foods you can include in your child’s diet.

  • Low-fat crackers
  • Pretzels
  • Rice cakes with peanut butter
  • Air-popped popcorn
  • Low-fat, no sugar yogurt, frozen yogurt with no sugar
  • Low-fat milk and cheese
  • Banana slices
  • Apple wedges
  • Carrots
  • Peaches
  • Grapes
  • Melon balls
  • Oranges

Avoid fruit juices, sodas, sweets like candy bars, cakes, etc. to prevent hyperglycemia.

Remember that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all when it comes to the amount of carbs that your child can or should have. Remember the thumb rule that anything taken in moderation, a diet that is well balanced is what your child needs to stay healthy.

3. Lifestyle and home care for diabetes

Living with diabetes is not easy. Your child will need to stick to a routine that involves monitoring blood sugar, taking insulin shots in time, eating healthy food at all times and being physically active.

Watching your child go through with his or her life with diabetes is even more painful.

But you are not alone in this. People have lived successful and happy lives, in spite of being affected by diabetes early on in life. So, here are some tips to win over the disease and make life easier and better for your child and yourself.

  • Teach the child the importance of diabetes care. Help them understand the seriousness of the illness.
  • Teach them early on to choose healthy foods. Encourage them to eat what is good for them: be their role model, start eating healthy foods.
  • Encourage physical activity: do things together to make it easier for them. Go for a run together. Play a game of tennis or basketball together. Go swimming or cycling together.
  • As the child grows, encourage him or her to be an active participant in managing diabetes.
  • Talk to your child’s school nurse to help in checking the child’s blood sugar levels and administering insulin in time.

Adjusting to life with diabetes can be difficult during the initial days. With a little bit of planning and routine in place, your child can start getting back to normal day-to-day activities, while managing diabetes with medication, healthy diet and lifestyle.

Over a period, your child should be able to enjoy slumber parties at a friend’s house, go for vacations, participate in school and extracurricular activities, have an active social life and achieve their goals in life.

[ Read: Does Sugar Make Kids Hyper ]

10 Simple Herbal Remedies For Diabetes

We have compiled a list of herbal remedies that you can give your child for managing diabetes better.

1. Basil:

The leaves of holy basil or Tulasi contain essential oils that help improve glucose absorption and tolerance.

  • Boil the holy basil leaves in a bowl of water and give it to the child to drink every morning.
  • Extract juice from these leaves. Take two teaspoons of the extract on an empty stomach every morning.

2. Cinnamon:

Cinnamon smells great and tastes good too! And, research has proved that intake of just three grams of cinnamon every day can help reduce the blood glucose levels and improve lipid parameters in diabetics (5).

  • Include at least one gram of cinnamon powder in the child’s diet every day for desired results.
  • Boil a spoonful of cinnamon powder in a bowl of water, for about 15 minutes. Strain the liquid and give it to the kid in small doses.

3. Bitter melon or bitter gourd:

Bitter gourd or melon has high polypeptide-p content, which is plant based insulin. The biochemical acts like insulin produced in our body to regulate the sugar levels. The juice of bitter melon is highly effective in reducing blood sugar levels in diabetic patients (6). Considering that the vegetable tastes bitter, your child may not be willing to try this home remedy.

  • Try making a curry or chutney with boiled bitter melons, if your child is not willing to have raw juice.
  • If your child is willing, give him or her fresh bitter gourd juice first thing in the morning, at least three times a week.

4. Green tea:

Green teas have antioxidants that support better insulin activity, making it easier to manage the blood glucose levels. Give your child a cup or two of non-caffeinated green tea every day.

5. Indian gooseberry:

Indian gooseberry or amla is rich in vitamin C that is essential for proper functioning of the pancreas. Research has proven that regular consumption of amla can reduce the blood sugar levels in the body (7).

  • The fruit can be eaten as it is but has a sour taste.
  • You can also extract the juice and add it to water, to make it less sour for the child.

For best results, consume the juice on an empty stomach.

6. Fenugreek seeds:

According to research, 100 grams of fenugreek seeds (powdered) can reduce a diabetic patient’s fasting blood sugar levels significantly (8). Also, the powder can reduce bad cholesterol in the body.

  • Soak a spoonful of fenugreek seeds in water overnight. Give them to the child first thing in the morning, before breakfast.
  • You can also powder the seeds and mix them in milk, for improving insulin secretion.

7. Java plum:

Java plum or Indian blackberry is an excellent remedy to control the blood sugar levels and prevent them from spiking.

  • Powder the dried seeds of the plum, mix it with water and give it to the child every day.
  • Powder the dried leaves of the tree. Mix it with water and give it twice a day.

8. Ginger:

Researchers do not exactly know how ginger makes the blood sugar levels go down, but it does. It also reduces the risk of complications that diabetes brings in (9). So use ginger as a seasoning in the foods you give your child. However, too much ginger can cause heartburn, so check with your doctor about the dosage (10).

9. Aloe vera:

One of the many benefits of aloe vera is it is anti-diabetic nature that helps in reducing the blood sugar levels. A daily dose of aloe vera, say one spoonful of aloe vera juice in the morning, can help keep the glucose levels in the body under control. Aloe vera also helps deal with constipation and improves the digestive system.

10. Mango leaves:

Mangoes are tasty and healthy. But mango leaves are healthier and can help treat diabetes in the early stages. Wash and dry the leaves, powder and mix it with water for consumption to regulate insulin levels. You can also boil mango leaves in water and leave it overnight. Filter the water and give it to the child first thing in the morning.

The remedies are easy to prepare at home for natural cure of diabetes. Your child may not like the taste as most of them are bitter but do not discontinue. Over a period they would get used to it.

It is painful to see your child suffer from a life-long condition like diabetes. But when the unimaginable has already happened, you cannot continue to feel dejected and do nothing about it. Take it as a challenge to make your child’s life as normal as possible. Remember that diabetes may not be curable but is definitely manageable.

[ Read: Nutritious Foods For Kids ]

Frequently Asked Questions:

1. What are the various types of insulin?

Insulin is of four types, based on its peak time and duration. Peak time is when insulin works the best at lowering the blood sugar levels. The duration is the maximum time the hormone is effective before it wears off.

  1. Rapid-acting insulin starts working within 15 minutes after it is administered. It peaks in about an hour after it is given.
  1. Short-acting insulin is effective 30 minutes after it is administered and peaks after around two hours.
  1. Intermediate-acting insulin also starts acting 30 minutes after it is given, but peaks after around five to six hours.
  1. Long-acting insulin is used to cover longer periods of up to 24 hours and has almost no peak time.

2. What are the different ways to administer insulin?

Most parents worry that the only way to deliver insulin is shots (injections). Depending on the dosage, age, and other factors, the doctor may also suggest oral medication or an insulin pump.

Insulin shot: Insulin is often administered using an insulin pen or a fine needle and syringe. The pen has a cartridge with the prescribed dosage of insulin and a needle to inject it.

An insulin pump is another option for children. The pump is usually wired to a catheter or is a wireless one.

There are no oral treatments for Type I diabetes. There is a possibility that pancreas transplant can remove the need for insulin treatment. However, pancreas transplants aren’t always successful and can have dangerous side effects too.

3. When is insulin therapy given for children with Type II diabetes?

In addition to a healthy diet and exercise, children with Type II diabetes may also have to take oral insulin medication, metformin, to keep the blood sugar levels in control. This drug may have a few side effects like nausea, diarrhea, and headaches.

Insulin therapy is typically given when your child has:

  • Blood glucose level higher than 250mg/dl, frequently.
  • A1C level of more than 9.
  • Has DKA or excess ketones in the urine.

If insulin therapy is necessary, it has to be administered as shots or through an insulin pump.

4. What are the possible reasons for fluctuation in blood sugar levels in children with diabetes?

Diabetes can be unpredictable sometimes. You may be doing everything right: checking the kid’s blood sugar four times a day, giving their insulin shots in time, giving them the healthiest possible foods and ensuring that they are exercising.

In spite of that, your child’s blood sugar may suddenly go up or down, for no apparent reason. Your child’s blood sugar levels can change due to:

  • Changes in the diet
  • Physical activity or lack of it
  • Change in medication
  • Other illnesses
  • Puberty and increase in growth hormones
  • Lack of sleep or change in sleep patterns

Remember, millions of people with the condition have managed to lead happy lives. Beat the illness at its game, don’t go sweet on it!

Have you been through this situation in your life? Do share your experiences and suggestions with our readers.

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