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A Deadly Form of Diabetes Doctors Sometimes Miss

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

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Her pediatrician told her mother that Di Lella probably had an eating disorder and he prescribed protein shakes.

Within a few days Di Lella wasn't waking up. Her mother took her to the hospital, at about the same time the doctor got blood work back showing that she had type 1 diabetes.

Her blood sugar level was over 400, and she was in diabetic ketoacidosis, or DKA. When your body doesn't get the glucose it needs for fuel (and when there's no insulin, glucose doesn't get into the body's cells), it burns fats for energy. This produces an acidic substance called ketones, which can build up in the blood, causing DKA.

"Once you're in DKA, you're set up for some major complications, and approximately 30 percent of people diagnosed with type 1 diabetes still present with DKA," Insel said.

After a week in the intensive care unit, Di Lella recovered. Her doctor apologized for the error and said he had never had a case of type 1 diabetes, so it wasn't something he normally looked for.

Insel said it's important to compare a child's changes in behavior to the other children in the family. Is the child drinking excessively compared to a sibling? Is a child who has mastered nighttime bladder control suddenly wetting the bed again?

The good news is that it's easy to test for type 1 diabetes. A urine test can detect whether there's sugar in the blood. If that test is positive, then a simple test drawing a drop of blood from the fingertip can confirm whether you have diabetes.

Di Lella, now a student at the University of Florida, said she would advise others to "not ignore symptoms that seem so basic. Even small symptoms can be a sign of something much bigger."

Parker said she wants other parents to know that a child with type 1 diabetes "doesn't necessarily look sick. Trust your gut instinct, and push to have your child tested."

The signs and symptoms of type 1 diabetes that everyone should know include:

  • Increased thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Wetting the bed in a child who has previously had good nighttime bladder control
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Sudden changes in vision
  • Unusual irritability
  • Increased appetite
  • A fruity odor on the breath
  • Heavy or labored breathing
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