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Know the signs of type 1 diabetes in children

 

11/13/2010
 

This time of year, with school in full swing and winter fast approaching, it's not uncommon for kids to come down with a cold or flu. It's important, however, that parents know that what may seem like harmless symptoms could actually be signs of something quite serious: type 1 diabetes.

Many parents have at least heard of type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease characterized by high blood sugar levels that can be controlled only by life-long insulin therapy. But what most people don't know is that approximately 40 percent of children with type 1 diabetes are not diagnosed until they end up in the emergency room with a potentially deadly condition called diabetic ketoacidosis or DKA.

As a doctor at the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes, I have diagnosed and treated thousands of children with type 1 diabetes. Time and time again I have seen families unfamiliar with the early signs of the disease end up with a child in the ICU with full-blown DKA.

This was the case for one of my current patients, Jonathan Broadus from Aurora. When he was just 18 months old he started wetting his diaper more often and came down with what seemed to be a cold. His pediatrician diagnosed him with an ear infection, but after two rounds of antibiotics he wasn't getting better. In fact, despite the medication, he looked worse and was extremely tired. Finally, his mother, Shauna, took him back to the doctor and demanded that blood work be done to see if there was something else going on.

She got her answer that night when the doctor's office called to tell her that not only did Jonathan's test results indicate he had type 1 diabetes, but he also had DKA. Little Jonathan was rushed to the ER in an ambulance and stayed in the hospital for two days while his condition stabilized.

Jonathan is now seven and managing type 1 diabetes is an every day part of his and his family's life. Unfortunately, what he and his family went through happens to thousands of children and parents a year, but it doesn't have to. By knowing the symptoms of type 1 diabetes, we can prevent DKA. Parents, teachers and — believe it or not — healthcare professionals all need to be more attuned to the telltale signs so they can help kids get diagnosed earlier.

Two of the major signs of type 1 diabetes are frequent urination and excessive thirst. Other signs include lower than normal energy, tiredness and weight loss. Also keep an eye out for fruity odor on the breath, vomiting without diarrhea, and heavy or labored breathing. Unfortunately, many of these symptoms are often overlooked or attributed to other childhood illnesses like the flu, bladder infections or asthma. If you recognize any of these signs, see your doctor for a quick blood or urine test to confirm the diagnosis.

Families on the lookout for the early symptoms of type 1 diabetes can get their children the help they need before the potentially tragic consequences of DKA set in. That's why I'm working with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation as part of a new initiative called "T1D Aware." With awareness and earlier diagnosis, we can make DKA a thing of the past.

Dr. Georgeanna Klingensmith is director of the Pediatric Clinic at the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes.