February 6, 2023

Recognizing diabetes is not as easy as many people think — especially when it’s a child with diabetes. Here are the signs and symptoms you need to know to identify diabetes in kids early — and why early intervention is key.

Diabetes affects children differently than adults, regardless of whether the child has type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes.

“We know that the presentation of diabetes, the severity, the course of the diabetes, are all a little bit different in kids,” said Jennifer Kelley, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Monroe Carrell Jr. Children’s Hospital and a clinician with the hospital’s Pediatrics Diabetes Program.

If diabetes is not properly diagnosed right away, it can lead to severe illness. Also, in some cases, delayed diagnosis can lead to delay of good blood glucose control, which can cause several health complications over time.

For example, it can “damage the blood vessels and nerves that go to things like the eyes, the kidneys and/or your extremities,” Kelley said. That can ultimately cause permanent damage and result in loss of vision, kidney failure, increased risk for infections, etc.

“It can also increase the risk for cardiovascular disease, which increases the risk for things like heart attacks or heart disease later in life,” she said.

Kelley explained, however, that the complications that can occur from delayed diagnosis and improper diabetes control can be prevented. That’s why it’s imperative to know the signs and symptoms of diabetes in kids, and why early intervention is key.

Signs and symptoms of type 1 diabetes

The complications that can occur from delayed diagnosis and improper diabetes control can be prevented. That’s why it’s imperative to know the signs and symptoms of diabetes in kids, and why early intervention is key.

Type 1 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes in children. It’s a chronic autoimmune disease that causes the body to lose its ability to produce insulin. This results in the body’s inability to regulate blood-sugar levels.

One of the most common signs of kids who are developing type 1 diabetes is unexplained weight loss, Kelley explained — even when they might have an increased appetite.

Another telltale sign of type 1 diabetes in kids is increasing unexplained fatigue, Kelley said. She added that “increased thirst and a lot more urination” are also classic findings of kids with type 1 diabetes.

In addition to the health complications that might arise when any type of diabetes is left uncontrolled, there’s a major difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

“Particularly in type 1 diabetes, if you can catch it early on you, you can prevent something called ‘diabetic ketoacidosis’ (DKA), which is often what people think of as diabetic coma,” Kelley said. This is when “you have very uncontrolled diabetes that hasn’t been diagnosed yet, and you can become very dehydrated and sick.”

“It can lead to having to be hospitalized, and in some very, very severe cases, it can be life threatening,” she added.

“The signs of DKA would be if a child is starting to have nausea and vomiting, and becoming lethargic,” Kelley explained. “And it’s in the setting of also having that history of weight loss, increased thirst and/or increased urination.” She said that children might also experience blurry vision and rapid breathing as a result of DKA.

“So early treatment and early blood sugar control is best to try to prevent DKA, and to start treatment as early as possible to prevent further complications,” she said.

If parents notice any of these possible symptoms of type 1 diabetes in their child, they should bring it up with their pediatrician and consider having their child tested, which can be as easy as a simple urine or blood test.

Signs and symptoms of type 2 diabetes

On the other hand, Kelley said that parents “might want to consider their child’s risk for type 2 diabetes if they have been gaining quite a bit of weight and if they have a family history of type 2.”

Oddly enough, a child with type 2 diabetes might experience some weight loss right before the diagnosis, Kelley said. “But if your child has a history of obesity and there’s family history, you might want to ask your doctor about screening for type 2.”

Similar to type 1 diabetes, increased thirst and urination are also possible symptoms of type 2 diabetes as well, Kelley said.

Another sign to be aware of “is if you start seeing dark patches of skin around the neck or under the arms,” she added. “That can actually be a sign of insulin resistance and risk for type 2.”

how to save money on diabetes supplies

The Diabetes Program at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt is one of the largest pediatric diabetes centers in the nation. These experts provide a family-centered approach to managing diabetes for more than 3,000 children from Tennessee and eight surrounding states at the Vanderbilt Eskind Pediatric Diabetes Clinic in Nashville and locations in Franklin, Murfreesboro, Jackson, Clarksville and Cookeville.

Learn More