Symptoms And Causes Of Diabetes In Children

Symptoms And Causes Of Diabetes In Children

Diabetes is becoming more common in children and young people. In 2019, there were around 36,000 children and teenagers under the age of 19 living with diabetes. Nine in ten children with the condition have type 1 diabetes, but increasing levels of obesity in childhood is making type 2 diabetes more of a problem in children. 

Read on for an overview of the causes of diabetes, the symptoms to look out for if you’re worried your child may have diabetes, and for links to pages with more detailed information.


Why do children get diabetes symptoms?


When your child has diabetes, their cells are starved of fuel, glucose builds up in their blood, and they pass sugar out in their urine. All of these factors can trigger diabetes symptoms and signs.

With no energy supply, your child will feel tired and weak. High blood glucose is the perfect breeding ground for fungal infections like thrush, and flushing glucose out in the urine makes your child pass more urine and get dehydrated and thirsty. 

With type 1 diabetes, the symptoms build up quickly and can your child can rapidly become very unwell. However, type 2 diabetes can come on more gradually, and the symptoms can be more subtle, so you may have to be more of a detective to pick up the signs.


Diabetes symptoms in children


No child is the same. Diabetes symptoms can be very individual depending on their age and their diabetes. With younger children, you may have to observe their behaviour and spot signs, symptoms and changes in mood and energy levels. However, there are common symptoms experienced by many people with diabetes. 


The symptoms of diabetes in children


  • Going to the pass urine more often. Older children may get up in the night to go to the toilet or start wetting the bed. Younger children may have more wet and heavy nappies
  • Drinking and more but still appearing thirsty
  • Appearing tired, listless and lacking in energy
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Seeming much more hungry because their body isn’t getting the energy they need
  • Recurrent thrush infections in the mouth, nappy area or skin creases
  • Cuts, scrapes and grazes take longer to heal
  • Complaining of blurred vision
  • Tummy pain
  • Headaches
  • The low energy supply can make them have behavioural problems, be moody, irritable and do less well at school


Symptoms of type 1 diabetes in children


With type 1 diabetes, you may notice additional symptoms-about a third of people with type 1 diabetes present with diabetic ketoacidosis or DKA. DKA is a serious condition in which your child’s body breaks down fat for energy, making chemicals called ketones build up in their bloodstream. Your child can become very unwell with the diabetes symptoms listed above and also:

  • Fruity smelling breath
  • Nausea, sickness and vomiting
  • Worsening tummy pain
  • They may become dehydrated with dry lips and tongue and no tears
  • They may seem more tired and become floppy and difficult to wake up
  • As the condition develops, they may fall unconscious and slip into a coma
  • They may develop a deep and laboured pattern of breathing

Children with type 2 diabetes can also present with dehydration and ketones in the urine, they also need urgent specialist hospital treatment.


Symptoms of type 2 diabetes in children


With type 2 diabetes, you may notice the general diabetes symptoms. However, they may develop more gradually and be more subtle. In addition, you may see signs of insulin resistance. These include:

  • Dark, thick, velvety skin discolouration between the fingers and toes, in the armpit, elbows, knees and skin creases. This is a skin condition called acanthosis nigricans
  • PCOS is linked to type 2 diabetes in girls with type 2 diabetes. They may notice increased hair growth on their face and body and scanty, irregular or absent periods


Causes of diabetes in children


In type 1 diabetes, the immune system destroys beta cells in the pancreas that produce the hormone insulin. Doctors don’t fully understand why your child’s body starts to attack their own cells, but there are thought to be several factors:

  • Genetics: A tendency to get type 1 diabetes can run in some families. Many genes have been identified, but every child with a faulty gene won’t get diabetes- so something else must contribute. Environmental factors could include:
  • Viral infections: Viral infections, including Human Enteroviruses or HEVs and even the virus linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, have been linked to triggering type 1 diabetes in some vulnerable people
  • Bowel microbiome: Children who develop type 1 diabetes may have fewer different types of bacteria in their guts than people who don’t develop the disease

Find out more about the causes of type 1 diabetes

Experts believe that type 2 diabetes in children is caused by a combination of things, including weight, exercise patterns, genes, and race. The causes of type 2 diabetes include: 

  • Being overweight or obese: Around three in every ten children are now obese. This increase in childhood obesity is reflected in increasing numbers of young people developing type 2 diabetes. Obesity is strongly linked to type 2 diabetes in adults, with obese adults five times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those with a healthy weight. 
  • Body fat distribution: Having belly fat and a thickened waistline is linked to insulin resistance, a feature of type 2 diabetes
  • Physical inactivity: Children that are not active are more likely to get type 2 diabetes. Exercise helps their body use insulin more effectively and also helps with weight loss
  • Genetics: A tendency to get type 2 diabetes can run in some families. Your child is more likely to develop diabetes if other close family members have type 2 diabetes. If a baby has a mother with gestational diabetes, they are more at risk of type 2 diabetes later in life
  • Ethnicity: Children of African-Caribbean, Black African, Hispanic, Pacific Island or South Asian heritage are more likely to get type 2 diabetes

Find out more about the causes of type 2 diabetes

To find out more, or to speak to one of our specialists at the London Diabetes Centre about diabetes management, contact us today.


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Carol Willis

Carol Willis - Diabetes Clinic Facilitator

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