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Type 1 Diabetes

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Type 1 diabetes happens when your immune system destroys cells in your pancreas called beta cells. They’re the ones that make insulin.

Some people get a condition called secondary diabetes. It’s similar to type 1, except the immune system doesn’t destroy your beta cells. They’re wiped out by something else, like a disease or an injury to your pancreas.

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What Does Insulin Do?

Insulin is a hormone that helps move sugar, or glucose, into your body's tissues. Cells use it as fuel.

Damage to beta cells from type 1 diabetes throws the process off. Glucose doesn’t move into your cells because insulin isn’t there to do it. Instead it builds up in your blood and your cells starve. This causes high blood sugar, which can lead to:

  • Dehydration. When there’s extra sugar in your blood, you pee more. That’s your body’s way of getting rid of it. A large amount of water goes out with that urine, causing your body to dry out.
  • Weight loss. The glucose that goes out when you pee takes calories with it. That’s why many people with high blood sugar lose weight. Dehydration also plays a part.
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). If your body can't get enough glucose for fuel, it breaks down fat cells instead. This creates chemicals called ketones. Your liver releases the sugar it stores to help out. But your body can’t use it without insulin, so it builds up in your blood, along with the acidic ketones. This combination of extra glucose, dehydration, and acid buildup is known as "ketoacidosis" and can be life-threatening if not treated right away.
  • Damage to your body. Over time, high glucose levels in your blood can harm the nerves and small blood vessels in your eyes, kidneys, and heart. They can also make you more likely to get hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Who Gets Type 1 Diabetes?

It’s rare. Only about 5% of people with diabetes have type 1. It’s more common in whites than in African-Americans. It affects men and women equally. Although the disease usually starts in people under 20, it can happen at any age.

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