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Understanding the signs and severity of type 1 diabetes

HOUSTON – Type 1 diabetes was previously referred to as juvenile diabetes, but that name is fading away because the illness can develop at any age. If it goes undiagnosed, it can be deadly. Otherwise, it is a manageable disease, but it requires constant monitoring.

By 7 a.m., identical twins Allison and Brooke have already pricked their fingers at least once. On the day they agreed to talk to KPRC2, Allison was up in the middle of the night trying to get enough sugar to normalize her levels.

“At 3 a.m. we had to get up and give them juice,” said their mother Courtney Livingston.

“When I drop, I get shaky and have a stomach ache,” 11-year-old Allison said about her blood sugar going too low.

To treat a low blood sugar, the twins can drink juice or eat candy. According to Dr. Daniel DeSalvo, an endocrinologist at Texas Children’s Hospital, there is no medication that can make blood sugar spike quite like candy. So, patients are encouraged to eat it when they need to make their levels go higher.

According to Beyond Type 1, a philanthropic group partnered with the Texas Pediatric Society and the Texas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, type 1 is an autoimmune and chronic condition that occurs when the body’s own immune system destroys the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. Because the pancreas produces little to no insulin, a hormone needed to convert sugar (glucose) to energy, people with type 1 must inject or pump insulin into their body every day in order to live. Type 1 is currently neither preventable nor curable and the cause is unknown.

Genetics can a role in type 1. That’s why, when Allison was diagnosed and hospitalized as a kindergartner, the Livingstons knew there was a chance her twin sister, Brooke, would follow. Several years later, both girls do battle the disease.

“It is constant. It is manageable but it is a… there is no break!” Courtney Livingston said. “It is 24/7, 365 days a year. At night time we are managing the disease, they get up, their blood sugar goes high, they go low, we're up all the time. We are always managing this disease. You never get a break. Ever.”

On top of the current concerns for the girl’s disease, their mom worries about their future.

“When they're living by themselves, are they going to wake up?” she asked. “There may not be anyone there to help the. We worry about when they start driving.”

DeSalvo lives with type 1 himself and said the most common warning sign parents miss is extreme thirst and frequent urination.

“It’s an unquenchable thirst,” he said. 

Plus, the symptoms happen fast! Many patients think they have some other sickness before they’re diagnosed.

“The onset is fairly acute and sudden and the symptoms are often confused with other illness. For example, a viral illness, stomach flu, a urinary tract infection or bladder infection,” DeSalvo explained.

Other symptoms include:
•    Increased thirst
•    Frequent urination
•    Bed-wetting in children who previously didn't wet the bed during the night
•    Extreme hunger
•    Unintended weight loss
•    Irritability and other mood changes
•    Fatigue and weakness
•    Blurred vision

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DeSalvo said patients can still live a normal life.

Type 1 has not stopped Allison and Brooke. In fact, they are such go-getters they sometimes have to be sidelined against their will.

“Last night at soccer practice, I was at 50 and I felt really low and I had to sit out and, like, I don't like that because I want to continue my activities,” Brooke said.

But unlike most kids their age, they are experts on their health and they are managing their disease with a continuous glucose monitor and insulin pump. New technology alarms their cellphones when it’s time to ingest sugar or administer insulin.

DeSalvo said type 1 diabetes is less common than type 2. About 5% of people with diabetes have type 1. Currently, no one knows how to prevent type 1 diabetes, but it can be managed by following your doctor's recommendations for living a healthy lifestyle, controlling your blood sugar, and getting regular health checkups

According to Beyond Type 1, type 1 diabetes is increasing by 3% globally.