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7 surprising facts about Type 1 diabetes

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Ditch the myths and misperceptions. Here are the facts you need to know.
Written by Nancy Fitzgerald
Updated on November 14, 2022

Maybe your cousin, or your grandma or your neighbor down the street has diabetes. Chances are, you know lots of people with the condition. After all, more than 37 million Americans live with diabetes. But most of them have Type 2 diabetes. Just 1.6 million have Type 1.

The 2 varieties are similar in lots of ways: They’re both caused by problems with insulin, the hormone that helps move sugar (glucose) into each cell in your body. That’s important because glucose gives your cells the energy they need to do all their work.

People with Type 2 diabetes (T2D) can’t make enough insulin, or their insulin doesn’t work as well as it should. Those with Type 1 diabetes (T1D) can’t make insulin at all, or they make very little. That’s because T1D is an autoimmune disease, a condition that causes your body to attack itself by mistake. With T1D, your body destroys the cells in your pancreas that make insulin. And without it, the glucose stays in your bloodstream. That can lead to serious trouble down the line.

“The biggest fears my patients with T1D have are about complications from high blood sugar,” says Samuel Mathis, MD. He’s a family doctor in Galveston, Texas, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Family Physicians. “Complications can include losing sensation in their hands and feet, blindness, amputation and increased risk of heart attacks or strokes.”

But there’s good news: There are lots of advances in diabetes research and monitoring. And new medications are available that can keep T1D under control.

“If you have Type 1 diabetes, you can live a full life with only small changes to your diet and lifestyle,” Dr. Mathis explains. “Education is important. Teaching patients about the signs and symptoms of high — and low — blood sugar levels can be very helpful. When you’re able to recognize your body’s signals, you can manage your condition.”

So if you’ve just been diagnosed with T1D — or if you’ve been dealing with it for a while — relax. Knowledge really is power. Here are 7 basic (and super important) facts that can help you learn about the condition and manage it successfully.

No matter how you manage your Type 1 diabetes, Optum Perks wants to help you save at the pharmacy. Here’s how it works.

1. Anybody can get Type 1 diabetes

T1D isn’t only in kids. It used to be known as juvenile diabetes. And though the peak age for being diagnosed is around 13 or 14, it can happen at any time of life. A recent study showed that adults are as likely to develop T1D as children are, with more than 40% of cases happening after the age of 30.

The problem is that it’s often misdiagnosed. That’s because Type 2 diabetes is so much more common among grown-ups. And the symptoms of both types are often similar. So it can be easy for doctors to make the wrong diagnosis. That can lead to the wrong treatments — and more problems.

Recommended reading: Why is childhood diabetes on the rise?

2. Symptoms can come on suddenly

Symptoms of T2D usually build up gradually. But T1D can hit you from out of the blue, sometimes over the course of just a few days or weeks. As your body looks for a way to eliminate the sugar that’s building up in your bloodstream, it starts to get rid of it through your kidneys. The result: You find yourself peeing all the time, one of the classic signs of T1D.

Other symptoms include feeling very thirsty and hungry and extremely tired. You might also experience blurry vision. But these symptoms can mimic other health conditions. So if you have any of them, see your provider right away. Left untreated, T1D can lead to serious, even life-threatening conditions. These include hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or diabetic ketoacidosis, which can be fatal.

3. You’re not born with Type 1 diabetes

Doctors don’t know everything about T1D, but there’s a genetic link. If people in your family have the condition, you’re more likely to get it, too. But even if you’ve got T1D-associated genes, you won’t necessarily get the disease. It needs something in the environment, such as a virus, to trigger it.

4. Type 1 diabetes isn’t your fault

Though healthy eating and physical activity are always good, T1D doesn’t happen because of poor lifestyle habits. There’s nothing you can do to prevent it, the way you can prevent T2D. Your body simply isn’t making the insulin it needs. And that can go on for months or years before you even notice any symptoms.

“One of the least-known facts about Type 1 diabetes is that it’s not your fault,” says Dr. Mathis. “It’s an autoimmune condition that’s not related to your diet or other factors.”

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5. With Type 1 diabetes, sweets are still on the menu

People with diabetes — as with all humans — should eat healthy foods with a focus on vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean protein. But if you want some cake at a birthday party or some candy at the movies, plan to cut back on other carbohydrates throughout the day. For example, you might have a slice of bread and a piece of fruit instead of a sweet treat. Talk with your doctor, diabetes educator or nutritionist to help you plan healthy meals and snacks. Remember: Moderation is always key.

6. Taking insulin keeps your Type 1 diabetes under control — and can even save your life

If you have T1D, you’ll take insulin every single day to keep your blood sugar levels in a healthy range. “The primary treatment for Type 1 diabetes is insulin replacement,” says Dr. Mathis. “And there are different ways that it can be provided.” You’ll work with your team to figure out which one is best for you. Methods include:

  • Injection. You inject insulin just under your skin using a syringe or an insulin pen. Some examples: Humalog® KwikPen®, NovoLog® FlexPen® and Toujeo® SoloStar.
  • Insulin pump. About the size of a small cell phone, it delivers insulin through a thin plastic tube or needle that’s placed under your skin. With this method, you don’t have to worry about giving yourself shots during the day. Some examples: pumps by Medtronic and Tandem.
  • Inhaler. This is a way to deliver fast-acting insulin right before you eat. Afrezza® must be used with long-acting insulin in people who have Type 1 diabetes.

7. You’re in charge of your Type 1 diabetes

You have a care team — doctors, nurses, pharmacists, nutritionists and diabetes educators — to back you up. But managing your T1D day to day is up to you. You’ll need to check your blood sugar levels a few times a day (your team will tell you what to do if your levels are too high or too low).

To do that, you can use a blood glucose meter or a continuous glucose monitor (CGM). The latter is a wearable device with a sensor that goes under your skin. It measures your blood sugar automatically throughout the day. And every couple of months, your provider will monitor your blood sugar with a lab test known as an A1c.

But living well with T1D is about more than replacing your insulin. It’s about following your care plan to stay as healthy as possible. That includes 4 basic rules:

  • Take your insulin as prescribed.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Stay active.
  • Check your glucose levels throughout the day, including before meals and at bedtime.

Living with T1D is manageable over your lifetime. The keys are to work with your doctor and other health care providers and to take an active role in maintaining healthy blood sugar. (And remember to use your free prescription discount card any time you go to the pharmacy to get your insulin. You don’t want to miss out on potential savings.)

Additional sources:
Type 1 diabetes statistics: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Type 1 diabetes overview: Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation
Diabetes and nutrition: Mayo Clinic