What's the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes?
Most people know there are two types of diabetes, but not everyone understands the difference between them. In both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, blood sugar levels can get too high because the body doesn't produce insulin (a hormone that regulates blood sugar)—or it does not utilize insulin properly. Though the problem is essentially the same in both types, they have different causes and treatments. Here's what you need to know.
Type 1 Diabetes
The main difference between the two types of diabetes is that type 1 diabetes is a genetic disorder that often shows up early in life, and type 2 is largely diet-related and develops over time. If you have type 1 diabetes, your immune system is attacking and destroying the insulin-producing cells in your pancreas. (The pancreas is the flat organ that looks kind of like an elongated, sideways comma and hangs out behind your stomach.)
The good news is today's treatments allow people with type 1 diabetes to learn to manage the effects of the disorder and still live a relatively "normal" life.
There are a few ways to treat type 1 diabetes:
- Monitor your blood sugar. Living with diabetes means getting familiar with healthy blood sugar levels and checking yours regularly. Depending on your health care provider's specific recommendation, you might need to check it four to ten times daily. You'll use a small blood sugar meter called a glucometer to measure glucose levels in a pin-prick of blood on a disposable test strip. Another option is to have a continuous glucose monitor, which automatically measures your blood sugar every few minutes using a sensor inserted underneath the skin.
- Take insulin. Because your body doesn't produce it on its own, you'll have to get it another way. There are a few methods for taking insulin, including regular injections or a wearable insulin pump, which delivers small, steady doses of fast-acting insulin throughout the day through a thin tube. Though it's certainly not the most convenient lifestyle, it often becomes second nature for people living with type 1 diabetes.
- Maintain a balanced diet. You don't have to be extremely restrictive, but carbohydrates are the foods you'll want to watch, making sure to eat them consistently but not go overboard. If you're taking a fixed amount of insulin, keeping your carbohydrate intake consistent to match is important.
- Exercise. Staying active is always an important component of health, but for people with type 1 diabetes, it can help keep blood sugar levels in check and cause your body to use the insulin more efficiently.
So what are the signs of type 1 diabetes?
If you or a loved one exhibit these symptoms, it's worth getting checked out:
- Increased thirst
- Frequent urination
- Unexplained weight loss
- Fatigue and weakness
- Blurred vision
Diagnosing Type 1 Diabetes
To diagnose type 1 diabetes you'll need to get blood tests done, one of which is called an A1C screening. A1C screenings measure your blood sugar levels from the past two to three months and can be used to diagnose type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes and prediabetes. Life Line Screening also offers an A1C screening from the privacy of you own home through our home tests. You can learn more here.
When it becomes an emergency:
There's a complication of type 1 diabetes called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), which results from very high blood sugar and is serious and life-threatening. With DKA, the cells in the body are starved for energy, so they start breaking down fat, producing toxic acids known as ketones. So if you or someone you love experiences these symptoms on top of diabetes symptoms, it's time to go to the ER:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Severe abdominal pain
- Chest pain
The diagnosis of DKA most often also results in a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes.
Another complication is low blood sugar or hypoglycemia, which could result from taking too much insulin. Hypoglycemia needs treatment right away to get the blood sugar back to normal—usually with high-sugar foods, drinking juice or regular soft drinks, eating candy, or taking glucose tablets or gel.
If blood sugar levels become too low, signs and symptoms can include:
- Pale skin
- An irregular or fast heartbeat
- Tingling or numbness of the lips, tongue or cheek
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 Diabetes is more common in the U.S. than type 1, and it is typically caused by lifestyle. With type 2 diabetes, your body still produces a small amount of insulin, but it isn't effective enough. The pancreas can't keep up with the high blood sugar levels resulting from poor diet and lack of exercise. Some people with type 2 diabetes actually have "insulin resistance," which means the pancreas produces insulin but the body does not recognize it (this is different than type 1, in which the insulin-producing cells are being attacked by the immune system).
Type 2 diabetes risk factors:
Your risk of developing type 2 diabetes is higher if your diet is high in carbs and fat but low in fiber, if you're not very physically active and/or if you have high blood pressure. High alcohol consumption and age are also risk factors. Though genes do play a role in the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes, it can be prevented with the right lifestyle choices, unlike type 1.
How to treat type 2 diabetes:
Unlike type 1, people with type 2 diabetes often do not need to take insulin, because their bodies still produce a small amount of it. Though there are medications like Metformin available to assist in lowering blood sugar, the primary ways to treat type 2 diabetes are:
- A balanced diet. Eating fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins while avoiding more than the occasional high-fat, high-sugar food is the first and most essential step to treating type 2 diabetes.
- Exercise. Staying active is also very important. There are so many ways to get exercise. Try different activities to find a type of exercise you enjoy and work it into your weekly routine.
- Weight loss. Of course, if you work toward eating healthier and exercising, this may be a byproduct. Losing weight is less about the number on the scale and more about taking care of your body and reducing the strain on your pancreas.
- Blood glucose monitoring. Checking your blood sugar regularly will become a part of your daily routine. It's important to stay up-to-date on how your levels are doing throughout the day and adjust your food and activities accordingly. After a while you'll figure out the regimen and balance that works best for you.
How do I know if I might have type 2 diabetes?
If you are experiencing the symptoms below, it's a good idea to get checked out:
- Excessive thirst
- Frequent urination
- Tingling or numbness in your hands or feet
- Blurry vision
- Increased hunger
- Itchy skin
Because of the genetic nature of type 1 diabetes, blood tests to determine the likelihood of type 1 aren't done often or recommended by doctors. When symptoms do arise, blood tests are necessary for diagnosis. As previously mentioned, an A1C screening determines blood sugar levels from the past two to three months and is typically used for diagnosis of type 1, type 2 and prediabetes.
In contrast, there are many ways to lower your risk of type 2 diabetes. It's particularly important if you have a history of diabetes in your family. Ways to lower your risk include:
- Exercise and weight management
- Healthy diet
- Maintain average blood pressure
- Maintain low alcohol consumption
- Quit smoking
- Increase your fiber intake
Prediabetes means you have a higher than normal blood sugar level, but it's not high enough to be considered type 2 diabetes yet. The causes, signs and preventions are essentially the same as type 2, but people under 45 have a significantly lower risk.
If you have any of the symptoms of diabetes or prediabetes, be sure to get tested as soon as you can. Schedule an A1C screening to get started.
The Bottom Line
Type 1 diabetes is a genetic disorder that typically shows up early in life, and type 2 diabetes is developed over time, largely due to diet. In both cases, your body does not produce enough insulin to properly regulate your blood sugar, but for different reasons. If you're exhibiting symptoms, you can get tested for diabetes with an A1C screening, which measures your blood sugar for the past 2-3 months.
Peace of Mind with Life Line Screening
At Life Line Screening, we have years of experience helping people prevent major medical issues with vital early detection services, including A1C screenings. In fact, screenings are our specialty. We partner with community centers to help people get quick, easy access to the screenings they want to stay on top of their health. No lengthy doctor's visits, no complicated insurance to deal with, just convenient screenings for health-conscious people conducted by trained professionals.