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Children's Health

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A Deadly Form of Diabetes Doctors Sometimes Miss

Common signs of type 1 diabetes often resemble symptoms of other illnesses

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Serena Gordon

HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, June 19 (HealthDay News) -- Addie Parker was a happy 4-year-old who appeared to have the flu. But within hours she was in a coma.

Tragically, her parents weren't familiar with the signs of type 1 diabetes -- extreme fatigue, thirst and sweet-smelling breath, among others -- in time to save their little girl. Soon after she was diagnosed, Addie's brain hemorrhaged. She died six days later, about a month shy of her fifth birthday.

Experts say a lack of awareness of the signs of type 1 diabetes is all too common. Just this month, a Wisconsin toddler died apparently because of undiagnosed type 1 diabetes.

"Addie had flu symptoms," recalled her mother, Micki Parker, who works in the operating room at a nearby hospital but was unfamiliar with type 1 diabetes.

"By the next morning, she was throwing up every hour," Parker said. Addie didn't have a fever, but later that day, she couldn't get up from the bathroom floor because she was so dizzy.

Eventually, the Parkers learned that Addie's blood sugar level was 543 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) -- more than four times higher than normal, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Most people have heard of type 2 diabetes, but type 1 diabetes is far less common. It can strike at any age -- even though it used to be known as juvenile diabetes -- and it always requires treatment with injected insulin or insulin delivered through a pump. People with type 1 diabetes don't produce insulin, a hormone needed to convert the food you eat into fuel for the body. Without insulin, glucose (blood sugar) rises to unhealthy levels.

Untreated, type 1 diabetes causes serious complications and even death. But it's often mistaken for other illnesses -- even by doctors.

"There's an underawareness of type 1 diabetes in the public, and in the healthcare system," said Dr. Richard Insel, chief scientific officer for JDRF (formerly the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation). "Missed diagnoses even occur in emergency rooms; people don't always think of it."

Every day, about 80 Americans are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and the total number rose 23 percent between 2000 and 2009 in children under 20. Currently, about 3 million Americans -- most of them adults -- are living with type 1 diabetes, according to the JDRF.

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