Only about 5% of those diagnosed with diabetes have type 1, which is why it may seem like this version of the disease seems a little more mysterious than type 2 diabetes—and with good reason: No one knows quite how to prevent type 1 diabetes yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That said, there are ways to type 1 diabetes, including living a healthy lifestyle and getting regular health checkups. Another important factor in type 1 diabetes management? Following a strict treatment plan, according to experts. Here's what you need to know about diabetes treatment options, if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with the condition.
What is type 1 diabetes, again?
When you have type 1 diabetes, your pancreas doesn’t make much or any insulin, a hormone that that allows blood sugar to enter the cells in your body where it’s used for energy, the CDC explains.
When you don’t have insulin, blood sugar can’t get into your cells and builds up in the bloodstream. That causes high blood sugar, which is bad for your body. High blood sugar causes many of the symptoms and complications of diabetes, like peeing a lot, feeling very thirsty, losing weight without trying, feeling very hungry, having blurry vision, having numbness or tingling, and feeling very tired, the CDC says.
Symptoms of type 1 diabetes can develop over a few weeks or months. And, while it usually starts when someone is a child or young adult, it can technically come on at any age.
So, how is type 1 diabetes treated?
Type 1 diabetes is detected through a simple blood test. If you have the disease, your doctor will likely give you some options when it comes to treatment—and a lot of it is managed by you.
1. Take regular insulin shots or a use an insulin pump
People with type 1 diabetes will need to take regular insulin shots or wear an insulin pump that delivers insulin directly into their body. This insulin helps manage blood sugar levels, Kathleen Dungan, M.D., an endocrinologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Health. Unfortunately, insulin can’t be taken as a pill because the acid in your stomach destroys it before it can reach your bloodstream, the CDC explains.
As for whether shots or a pump is best, it depends. “Therapies are usually individualized to patients,” Katherine Araque, M.D., director of endocrinology of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Health. For people who prefer to do insulin shots, they’ll generally need to take a long-acting insulin and then do insulin injections before meals and bedtime, she says.
That’s a lot of injections, which is why doctors generally recommend using a pump. “We usually like to have patients on insulin pumps if they can safely manage them because they’re easier and more flexible for people with diabetes,” Dr. Dungan says. Some newer pumps can “provide more of an automated insulin delivery, so a patient is not constantly having to make adjustments,” she says.
2. Check blood sugar regularly
Specifics on this tend to vary by patient. “Typically, people with type 1 diabetes need to check their blood sugar at least four times a day, but we have good data that show that the more they check, the better their overall control is,” says Dr. Dungan.
Everyone’s target blood sugar levels are slightly different, but the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) says that targets usually are between 80 and 130 before you have a meal and below 180 two hours after the start of the meal.
Traditionally blood sugar has been checked with a finger stick blood glucose test, but there are continuous glucose monitors available that measure the glucose levels under your skin every five minutes. “We prefer that most patients be on a continuous glucose monitor to minimize the number of finger sticks they have to do,” says Dr. Dungan.
3. Have strategies in place for when blood sugar levels are off
High blood sugar (aka hyperglycemia) happens when your blood sugar level is higher than your target or 180. This can cause symptoms like feeling really tired, having blurry vision, or needing to pee more often than usual, the NIDDK says. If this happens, it’s best to check your blood sugar and, if it’s high, the NIDDK says it’s best to drink a large glass of water and go for a “brisk” walk.
Low blood sugar (aka hypoglycemia) can also be an issue. This is when your blood sugar drops below 70. Symptoms include feeling shaky, sweaty, or very hungry, the NIDDK says. If you have these symptoms and your blood sugar is low, the NIDDK recommends chewing four glucose tablets, drinking four ounces of fruit juice, drinking four ounces of regular (not diet) soda, or chewing four pieces of hard candy right away. Then, wait 15 minutes and check your blood sugar again. Keep doing this until your blood sugar is 70 or above.
4. Try to manage stress
It’s important for everyone to try to get their stress levels under control, but it’s especially crucial for those with type 1 diabetes since stress can make it hard to control blood sugar levels, Dr. Dungan says.
That’s why doctors usually try to advocate for patients to “follow a healthy lifestyle, including eating a balanced diet and getting regular physical activity,” Dr. Araque says. “With type 1 diabetes, there are innumerable factors that can affect glucose control,” Dr. Dungan says. “Many patients learn patterns of activity, diet, sleep, and stress levels that impact this and figure out how to manage them.”
Managing type 1 diabetes can be “tough,” Dr. Dungan admits. But with the right treatment, it’s possible to lead a long and healthy life with the disease.
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