Diabetes basics

Information for parents/carers and school staff

What is diabetes? What is the difference between type 1 and type 2? How does diabetes affect young people? How do young people manage their diabetes? If you are supporting a young person living with diabetes, you will want to know the answers to these important questions.

We have a Healthline staffed by health professionals at Diabetes Queensland. You can contact us for advice or support on 1800 177 055.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes Mellitus (diabetes) is diagnosed when glucose levels in the blood are outside of the healthy range. This occurs when the body does not produce any insulin, cannot produce enough insulin, or when the insulin the body makes does not work properly.

Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas. After food is digested, carbohydrates in the food are broken down into glucose. This glucose then enters the blood stream. When blood glucose levels (BGLs) rise, the body releases insulin.

The body uses insulin to move glucose from the blood stream into cells where it is used as energy.

Without any insulin, enough insulin or enough working insulin, glucose levels rise in the bloodstream leading to the diagnosis of diabetes.

What is the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition with no known cause or cure. It occurs because the pancreas loses the ability to make insulin. When the body is not producing its own insulin, people with type 1 diabetes need to take insulin every day by injection or an insulin pump.

Type 1 diabetes is most commonly diagnosed in children and adolescents, but it can occur at any age.

In type 2 diabetes the pancreas is still able to make insulin. However, it is either not enough insulin or the insulin made does not work properly.

How does diabetes affect young people?

Young people living with diabetes can show signs of low (hypoglycaemia) or high (hyperglycaemia).

Hypoglycaemia

Hypoglycaemia (often called a ‘hypo’) is a BGL below 4mmol/L. It occurs when there is not enough glucose in the blood stream for the body to function. Hypos require immediate treatment with glucose to raise BGL’s to above 4mmol/L.

Hypos can occur quickly and symptoms range from feeling shaky, sweaty, light-headed, dizzy, irritable and tingling around the mouth.

A hypo may be caused by:

  • an imbalance between food, physical activity and insulin, for example, not eating enough carbohydrates or taking too much insulin.
  • excess excitement and stress (mood changes)
  • temperature extremes

Hyperglycaemia

Hyperglycaemia is a high BGL, usually above 15mmol/L, which occurs when there is too much glucose in the blood stream. High BGLs can cause tiredness, headaches, frequent urination, dry mouth, nausea, trouble thinking or concentrating.

High BGLs can be caused by:

  • not enough insulin in the body
  • eating too much carbohydrate-rich food
  • sickness or infection
  • stress
  • reduced physical activity

Blood glucose monitoring

An important part of managing diabetes is monitoring BGLs to identify lows and highs.

Blood glucose monitoring is important to assist the young person/carer to understand:

  • hypoglycaemia and hyperglycaemia
  • the effect of food, physical activity and insulin on glucose levels
  • when and if changes to a young person’s diabetes management is required
  • if the young person’s sick day management plan is working or when they may need to seek medical care.

There are a few different ways young people can check their BGLs:

  • Finger prick check – this is carried out by pricking a finger with a device called a lancet, to obtain a drop of blood. A blood glucose meter then displays the immediate BGL.
  • Continuous Glucose Monitoring (CGM) – CGMs are small, wearable devices that measure glucose levels continuously in the fluid between the cells beneath the skin. CGMs measure glucose every 5 minutes, 24 hours a day, and will update when in range of the receiver (device or phone). They can be programmed to sound alarms and send warnings if glucose levels are getting too low or too high and provide patterns and trends throughout the day and night.
  • Flash Glucose Monitoring (FGM) – FGMs are small (about the size of a 20c piece), wearable devices worn on the upper arm. Like CGMs, FGMs also measure glucose levels in the fluid between the cells beneath the skin. Unlike CGMs, FGMs need to be scanned by a reader or phone to display a glucose level and do not have alarms.

It is important to note that CGMs and FGMs do not measure blood glucose levels so there is a lag time between blood glucose and CGM/FGM sensor readings of 6 – 12 minutes.

Things that can lower BGLs include:

  • Insulin
  • Skipped meals
  • Physical activity
  • Other diabetes medication
  • Stress
  • Temperature changes

Things that can raise BGLs include:

  • Carbohydrate foods
  • Not enough insulin
  • Illness
  • Injury
  • Stress

Find out more about diabetes at school. 

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