Discovering that you or someone you’re close to has diabetes can come as a shock, especially if you don’t know much about this condition.
There are about three million people in the UK who have been diagnosed with diabetes.
How diabetes affects you
When you have diabetes it means that the glucose levels in your blood are too high. This is because your body isn’t able to use the glucose properly.
Normally a hormone, insulin, which is made in your pancreas, helps to get glucose from your blood into your cells, which use it for fuel.
If your body doesn’t produce enough or any insulin, or the insulin doesn’t work as it should, your blood glucose levels become very high. If left untreated diabetes can make you very ill.
Type 1 or type 2?
There are two main types of diabetes, type1 and type 2. “Type 1 Diabetes is usually diagnosed earlier in life, in children and adults under 40,” says Pav Kalsi, Clinical Advisor for the charity Diabetes UK. “This is when your body doesn’t produce any insulin whatsoever, so you have to have insulin injections to control your blood glucose levels.” It is also important to take care of yourself, live healthily and be active.
Type 2 diabetes tends to develop later in life, usually over the age of 40. Age is just one of the risk factors. The others include being overweight, especially around your middle, having a family history of diabetes (especially a parent or sibling with the condition), coming from a South Asian background, and having taken blood pressure medication or having had a heart attack or stroke. This type of diabetes is much more lifestyle related.
Symptoms to watch out for
“The symptoms for type 1 and type 2 diabetes are similar. The difference is that the onset of symptoms in type 1 are much more rapid,” explains Pav Kalsi. “People become ill very quickly if they have type 1. With type 2 it happens over time and symptoms may not be as noticeable. This is part of the reason why about 850,000 people have type 2 diabetes, but don’t know it.”
However, people with type 1 may also be missed in terms of their symptoms (see Alexa Grinter’s story, below).
“This is why we launched our Four Ts campaign, for greater awareness of the symptoms,” says Pav Kalsi. The Four Ts stand for Toilet – urinating a lot, Tired – being extremely tired, Thirsty – drinking a lot of liquids, and Thinner – losing a lot of weight.
“If not managed straight away, diabetes can lead to you being hospitalized,” says Pav Kalsi.
Types of treatment
Type 1 diabetes is treated with insulin, either through injections that you give yourself or using a pump, as well as staying healthy and active. To make sure that your blood glucose is at the right level you need to carry out regular blood checks, usually with a finger prick blood test. You must also count the amount of carbohydrates that you eat, and adjust the amount of insulin you inject accordingly. (Carb counting books make this relatively simple.)
Treatment for type 2 diabetes is slightly different. You may start by making lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, eating healthily and exercising regularly. This may be enough to keep your blood glucose levels stable.
However, type 2 diabetes is a progressive condition and many people need to take medication (usually tablets), and insulin.
If you are concerned that you may have diabetes, see your GP.
Learning to live with diabetes
Alexa Grinter, 30, works in AXA’s contact centre, alongside the nursing team, and lives near Tunbridge Wells. She was15 when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
"I'd been ill for quite a few months. To start with my doctor thought I might have an infection. They gave me antibiotics and eventually sent me for a blood test. By this point I had lost a lot of weight, had an unquenchable thirst and absolutely no energy – I couldn’t even walk up the stairs without help."
"I saw the nurse at my GP’s surgery. She took one look at me and said ‘You’re diabetic.’ Once I’d described my symptoms she did a blood test to check the level of glucose in my blood. It was very high, and confirmed that I have diabetes."
Alexa has had diabetes for half her life now, and the blood glucose checks and the insulin injections have become a normal part of her day. "I inject one form of insulin in the morning and evening to keep my blood glucose where it needs to be.
Then every time I have a meal or a snack containing carbohydrates, I inject another insulin to counteract the carbs. You just find a way to make it work and learn to understand it."
"My local diabetes clinic is an invaluable support. I see a specialist, and the team of nurses and dietitians at the Kent and Sussex Weald Diabetes Centre (in Tunbridge Wells). They’re there for me whenever I need them."
For more information on diabetes why not read our factsheets and many useful features on managing diabetes. You can also submit any questions you might have to one of our online experts.