What Is Diabetes? Diabetes is a disease that affects how the body uses glucose, the main type of sugar in the blood. What Happens in Diabetes? Our bodies break down the foods we eat into glucose and other nutrients we need, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream from the gastrointestinal tract. The glucose level in the blood rises after a meal and triggers the pancreas to make the hormone insulin and release it into the bloodstream. But in people with diabetes, the body either can't make or can't respond to insulin properly. Insulin works like a key that opens the doors to cells and lets the glucose in. Without insulin, glucose can't get into the cells (the doors are "locked" and there is no key) and so it stays in the bloodstream. As a result, the level of sugar in the blood remains higher than normal. High blood sugar levels are a problem because they can cause a number of health problems. What Is Type 2 Diabetes? The two types of diabetes are type 1 and type 2. Both make blood sugar levels higher than normal but they do so in different ways. Type 1 diabetes happens when the immune system attacks and destroys the cells of the pancreas that produce insulin. Kids with type 1 diabetes need insulin to help keep their blood sugar levels in a normal range. Type 2 diabetes is different. A person with type 2 diabetes still produces insulin but the body doesn't respond to it normally. Glucose is less able to enter the cells and do its job of supplying energy (a problem called insulin resistance). This raises the blood sugar level, so the pancreas works hard to make even more insulin. Eventually, this strain can make the pancreas unable to produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels normal. People with insulin resistance may or may not develop type 2 diabetes — it all depends on whether the pancreas can make enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels normal. High blood sugar levels that happen a lot are a sign that a person has developed diabetes. Who Gets Type 2 Diabetes? No one knows for sure what causes type 2 diabetes. But many kids who develop it have at least one parent with diabetes and a family history of the disease, so there seems to be a genetic risk. Most people with type 2 diabetes are overweight. Excess fat makes it harder for the cells to respond to insulin, and not being physically active makes this even worse. Type 2 diabetes used to mostly affect adults, but now more and more U.S. kids and teens, especially those who are overweight, are developing the disease. Also, kids in puberty are more likely to have it than younger kids, probably because of normal rises in hormone levels that can cause insulin resistance during this stage of fast growth and physical development. What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes? The symptoms of type 2 diabetes aren't always obvious and they can take a long time to develop. Sometimes, there are no symptoms. It's important to remember that not everyone with insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes develops these warning signs, and not everyone who has these symptoms necessarily has type 2 diabetes. But kids or teens who develop type 2 diabetes may: Need to pee a lot. The kidneys respond to high levels of glucose in the blood by flushing out the extra glucose in urine (pee). Kids with high blood sugar levels need to pee more often and make more pee. Drink a lot of liquids. Because they're peeing so often and losing so much fluid, they can become very thirsty and drink a lot in an attempt to keep the levels of body water normal. Feel tired often. This is because the body can't use glucose for energy properly. How Is Type 2 Diabetes Diagnosed? Doctors can determine if a person has type 2 diabetes by testing blood samples for glucose. Even if a child or teen doesn't have any symptoms of type 2 diabetes, doctors might test blood sugar in kids who are more likely to get it — like those who are overweight. Sometimes doctors may do another blood test, called the glycosylated hemoglobin (hemoglobin A1c or HbA1c) test, to check for diabetes in children at higher risk for getting type 2 diabetes. This test shows how blood sugar levels have been running over the past few months. If diabetes is suspected or confirmed, the doctor may refer you to a pediatric endocrinologist, a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the endocrine system (such as diabetes and growth disorders) in kids. How Is Type 2 Diabetes Treated? Kids and teens with type 2 diabetes use diet, exercise, and medicines that improve the body's response to insulin to control their blood sugar levels. Some may need to take insulin shots or use an insulin pump too. What Problems Can Happen With Type 2 Diabetes? Sometimes, kids and teens with type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, or obesity might develop thick, dark, velvet-like skin around the neck, armpits, groin, between fingers and toes, or on elbows and knees — a cosmetic skin condition called acanthosis nigricans. This skin darkening can lighten over time with improvement in insulin resistance. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) in girls is also often associated with insulin resistance. This hormone problem can make the ovaries become enlarged and develop cysts (fluid-filled sacs). Girls with PCOS might have irregular periods, might stop having periods, and may have excess facial and body hair growth. It also can cause fertility problems. People with insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes are also more likely to develop hypertension (high blood pressure) or abnormal levels of blood fats (cholesterol and triglycerides). When these problems cluster together, it's called metabolic syndrome. People with metabolic syndrome are at risk for heart disease, stroke, and other health problems. Diabetes also can cause heart disease and stroke, as well as other long-term complications, including eye problems, kidney disease, nerve damage, and gum disease. While these problems don't usually show up in kids or teens who've had type 2 diabetes for only a few years, they can affect them in adulthood, particularly if their diabetes isn't well controlled. What's New in the Treatment of Type 2 Diabetes? Doctors and researchers are developing new equipment and treatments to help kids deal with the special problems of growing up with diabetes. Some kids and teens already use new devices that make blood glucose testing and insulin injections easier and more effective. One of these is the insulin pump, a mechanical device that can be programmed to deliver insulin more like the pancreas does. Researchers are also testing ways to stop diabetes before it starts. For example, scientists are studying whether diabetes can be prevented in those who may have inherited an increased risk for the disease. How Can I Help My Child? Diabetes is a chronic condition that needs close attention. You'll be your child's most important partner in learning to live with it. Kids or teens with type 2 diabetes may need to: Get to and maintain a normal body weight. Monitor blood sugar levels regularly. Eat a healthy diet, as determined by the care team. Get regular physical activity to achieve a healthy weight and allow insulin to work more effectively. Take insulin or other medicines that help the body respond to insulin more effectively. Work closely with their doctors and diabetes health care team to get the best possible diabetes control. Be watched for signs of complications and other diabetes-related health problems. Living with diabetes is a challenge for anyone, but kids and teens often have special issues to deal with. Young kids might not understand why they need blood tests and medicines. They might be scared, angry, and uncooperative. Teens may feel different from their peers and want a more carefree lifestyle than their diabetes allows. Even when they faithfully follow their treatment schedule, they might feel frustrated if the natural body changes of puberty make their diabetes somewhat harder to control. Having a child with diabetes may seem overwhelming at times, but you're not alone. If you have questions or problems, reach out to the diabetes health care team — they can help with medical issues, and are there to support and help you and your child. Back to Articles Related Articles Treating Type 2 Diabetes Kids who are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes will need a diabetes management plan to help them manage the condition and stay healthy and active. Read More Can Diabetes Be Prevented? Parents want to protect their kids from everything, which is virtually impossible, of course. But can you prevent your child from getting diabetes? Read More Diabetes Control: Why It's Important You've probably heard your child's doctor talk a lot about diabetes control. What is it and why is it important? Read More Diabetes Center Does your child have type 1 or type 2 diabetes? Learn how to manage the disease and keep your child healthy. Read More Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) In polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), the ovaries produce higher than normal amounts of certain hormones, which can interfere with egg development and release. Learn how doctors diagnose and treat PCOS. Read More Metabolic Syndrome Metabolic syndrome is a signal that someone could be on the road to serious health problems. Find out more in this article for teens. Read More Metabolic Syndrome Metabolic syndrome is a group of health problems that put kids at risk for heart disease and diabetes. With lifestyle changes, many kids improve their health and reduce their risk of disease. Read More Diabetes Control: Why It's Important Keeping blood sugar levels under control can help keep you healthy and prevent health problems from happening down the road. Find out more. Read More Diabetes Center Our Diabetes Center provides information and advice for teens about treating and living with diabetes. Read More Diabetes: Dealing With Feelings Dealing with diabetes can stir up a lot of different emotions. Find out more about dealing with your feelings if you're a kid with diabetes. Read More Can Diabetes Be Prevented? The things you do now could help prevent diabetes later, depending on the type of diabetes. Here's the scoop on diabetes prevention. Read More Can Diabetes Be Prevented? Diabetes is a health problem that affects kids of all ages, but you can't catch it like a cold. In some cases, diabetes can be prevented. Find out how. Read More Keeping Track of Your Blood Sugar Checking your blood sugar levels is a really important part of managing diabetes. Knowing those levels will help you keep your blood sugar under control - and that helps you feel good and keeps you healthy. Read More Weight and Diabetes A balanced diet and an active lifestyle are important for kids with diabetes because weight can influence diabetes, and diabetes can influence weight. Read More Weight and Diabetes Weight can influence diabetes, and diabetes can influence weight. Managing weight can really make a difference in a person's diabetes management plan. Read More Weight and Diabetes Being at a healthy weight is a good idea for everyone, but it's even more important for kids with diabetes. Read More Diabetes Control: Why It's Important People who have diabetes may hear or read a lot about controlling, or managing, the condition. But what is diabetes control and why is it so important? Read More Diabetes Center Diabetes means a problem with insulin, an important hormone in the body. Find out how children with diabetes can stay healthy and do the normal stuff kids like to do. Read More Your Child's Diabetes Health Care Team When you have a child with diabetes, you and your family have a lot to learn, but you don't have to go it alone. Your child's diabetes health care team can help. Read More What Problems Can Diabetes Cause? Thinking about your diabetes a little bit now — and taking some steps to prevent problems — can make things easier down the road. Read More School and Diabetes When kids with diabetes attend school, parents should discuss the condition with teachers, school staff, and coaches. Here are some tips on what to cover. Read More Type 2 Diabetes: What Is It? Diabetes is a disease that affects how the body uses glucose, a sugar that is the body's main source of fuel. Find out more about a kind of diabetes called type 2 diabetes in this article for kids. Read More Type 2 Diabetes: What Is It? Teens with type 2 diabetes have to pay close attention to what they eat and do. Read More Acanthosis Nigricans Acanthosis nigricans (AN) is a condition that causes the skin to thicken and darken in places. AN is not harmful or contagious, but can be a sign of certain other medical conditions. Read More Acanthosis Nigricans Acanthosis nigricans is a darkening and thickening of the skin that can be a sign of other medical conditions. Find out more. Read More Type 2 Diabetes: How Is It Treated? People with type 2 diabetes need to follow a plan to manage their diabetes and stay healthy and active. Read More Type 2 Diabetes: How Is It Treated? Kids with type 2 diabetes have to take some important steps to feel good and stay healthy. Find out more about treating type 2 diabetes in this article for kids. Read More Medicines for Diabetes Taking medicines is a major part of staying healthy if you have diabetes because they help you keep your blood sugar levels under control. Read More Medicines for Diabetes Whether your child is taking insulin or pills (or both) to control diabetes, it's important to learn how diabetes medicines work. Read More Medicines for Diabetes For most kids with diabetes, taking medicine is an important part of staying healthy. Find out more in this article for kids. Read More When Blood Sugar Is Too High For people with diabetes, controlling blood sugar levels is important. Having a blood sugar level that's too high can make you feel lousy, and having high blood sugar levels a lot can be unhealthy. Read More Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.