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diabetes; insulin; glucose; hypo; sugar; blood; type 1;


What is diabetes?

Diabetes happens when someone's body does not have enough insulin.

A car needs fuel to give it the energy to keep working. 
Our bodies need fuel to give them the energy to keep working.
We get the fuel from our food.

diagram of diabetes Carbohydrates in food get changed into glucose, the main energy that our bodies use. This change happens in our gut and in our liver.

Enzymes help this change (they are not the same enzymes as the ones in washing powder). These enzymes come from several different parts of our body including the pancreas [say pan-kree-ass].
diagram of diabetes The glucose travels around our bodies inside blood vessels but it cannot be used as energy until it gets into our body cells.
diagram of diabetes Insulin is the key that lets the glucose go through the cell wall into our cells. Insulin is a hormone.

If there is not enough insulin there can be a lot of glucose travelling around in the blood, but the cells do not have enough energy to work well, which makes people sick.
(The above graphics used with kind permission from Roche Diagnostics GmbH.)

Lots of small clumps of cells in the pancreas make insulin. These cells are called 'islets' because they are like little islands in the pancreas. The rest of the pancreas makes enzymes.

Types of diabetes

There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 and  type 2.

  • Children and young people usually get type 1, sometimes called 'juvenile diabetes'. (Juvenile [say joo-ven-ile is a word that means child or young person).
  • People who get diabetes when they are older usually get type 2 diabetes. But more young people are getting Type 2 diabetes because they are overweight or obese.

Dogs can get diabetes too!

How can you get it?

Type 1 diabetes happens when the 'islet' cells in the pancreas are damaged and they don't make enough insulin. 

Why a person gets type 1 diabetes is complicated.

  • Partly it is due to the genes that the child got from his parents.
  • Then maybe the child gets an infection caused by a virus.
  • For a few people this infection triggers the body's immune system so that instead of attacking only germs, the immune system starts to attack normal, healthy body cells such as the ones that make insulin.

Even though a viral infection triggers the damage, you can't 'catch' diabetes and most children who have this infection do not get diabetes.

About 1 in every 1000 children in Australia has diabetes.

It usually starts between the ages of 5-12, but some children get it when they are very young, and sometimes it starts in people over 12.

What problems does it cause?

Although the amount of insulin being made drops slowly, often a child becomes quite sick suddenly. When the family looks back they remember that the child has been:

  • feeling more tired than usual
  • feeling more thirsty
  • wanting to wee a lot, even having to get up in the night
  • losing weight.

test tubeOften a child will then get very sick, being weak and sleepy.

A doctor can do a simple  blood test to see if this is diabetes. With treatment (using a drip to give the child lots of fluid), the child will feel well again quite quickly (usually within an hour or two).

If the test shows diabetes, then the right treatment will need to begin.

What happens next?

To stay well, a child with Type 1 diabetes will need treatment for the rest of his life.

Dr Kate and Dr KimIf the child needed to be in hospital, learning about diabetes will start there, but sometimes the family will be able to start treatment with their family doctor.

Even though the child is 'the patient', all members of the family need to learn a lot about diabetes.

A specialist team will work with the child and family so that they learn about living with diabetes.

The child and the family will learn:

  • all about diabetes
  • how to do a blood glucose or 'sugar' test
  • how to give insulin injections - this usually involves using a special insulin 'pen'.
  • how to manage the diet so that the child gets the right kind of food at the right time
  • how important it is to exercise
  • how to cope with feelings about having diabetes (most children feel angry and sad that they have diabetes)
  • how to know when blood sugar is low
  • how to know when blood sugar is high
  • what to do to raise or lower blood sugar levels.

How to manage Type 1 diabetes

Children with diabetes must:

  • exercisewatch what they eat, and especially never skip a meal
  • check sugar levels in their blood using a drop of blood from pricking a finger
  • have insulin injections every day - often several times a day
  • exercise
  • have as much fun as any other kid!

And if the diabetes is well managed then, there is no reason why they shouldn't have as much fun as any other kid!

People with diabetes are not sick, but they do have to do more work to stay healthy.

How to help your friend

If your friend has diabetes then you can be a good friend by:

  • food groupsmaking sure that he eats his recess and lunch. [And you too of course]
  • not sharing sweet and sugary food with him. [It's not good for you or your teeth either.]
  • not telling everyone in the class about it. His teacher will know and your friend may not want other people to know.
  • encouraging him to join in sports and exercise because it is very good for him - and you too!
  • understanding that he may seem a bit tired or grumpy sometimes, when he is feeling a bit 'low'. [This means that he may need a glucose tablet, or jelly beans that your teacher probably has in her desk or at the school office.]
  • understanding that he needs to eat regular meals even if he's staying over at your place and you're having a computer game marathon.

But always remember it is your friend who is 'in charge' and he or she is the one who needs to decide how much help they want.

What some kids who live with diabetes say

  • "I used to get angry sometimes and think that it's not fair. Then I just got used to having to manage diabetes and I just get on with my life." - Tom
  • "I play hockey a lot and I know that I need to have food with me in case I start feeling tired." - Scott.
  •  "Once I was mad that I had to go to hospital and missed a friend's party but if the doctors didn't help me then I guess I would miss a lot more." - Kylie.
  • "I check my own levels now and use the 'pen'. It's easy and I'm in charge." Anon
  • "We had to give a talk to the class so I talked about diabetes and how I had to manage it. Some of the kids were amazed and some said that it was really cool that I could do the testing and stuff by myself." - Ty

Did you know?

There are hundreds of people who are famous in all areas of life, from writers to sports stars, and they all have diabetes.

Go to your favourite search engine and type in Diabetes + famous people. You will be amazed!!

My grandmother has just developed diabetes. Does this mean that I will get diabetes too?

  • Answer
    She probably has type 2 diabetes, and you are not more likely to get type 1 diabetes than other kids.

Dr Kate says:

Dr KateDo you remember that we said there is another type of diabetes? Type 2 diabetes? Lots of older people have type 2 diabetes, and some of the reasons they get diabetes is because they are overweight and unfit. Keeping your weight under control and developing a habit of exercising as a child means that you are less likely to get this other type of diabetes.

 Some kids get Type 2 diabetes - usually because they are very overweight.

These are some sites that have more information about diabetes and activities (eg camps and outings) for young people with diabetes and their families.

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We've provided this information to help you to understand important things about staying healthy and happy. However, if you feel sick or unhappy, it is important to tell your mum or dad, a teacher or another grown-up.


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