What is diabetes?

Diabetes is the condition in which the body does not properly process food for use as energy. Most of the food we eat is turned into glucose, or sugar, for our bodies to use for energy. The pancreas, an organ that lies near the stomach, makes a hormone called insulin that facilitates the transportation of glucose from the blood stream into organs and muscles where it serves as the main energy source.

There are two main types of diabetes. In Type 1 diabetes, also known as insulin-dependent diabetes or juvenile diabetes, the pancreas does not produce enough insulin. In Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of diabetes, either the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or the body’s cells develop a resistance to insulin.

Type 1 diabetes symptoms

  • Frequent urination
  • Unusual thirst
  • Extreme hunger
  • Unusual weight loss
  • Extreme fatigue and irritability
  • Blurred vision

NOTE: Not all signs and symptoms may be present, and for Type 2 diabetes, persons can appear to be asymptomatic.

Type 2 diabetes symptoms

  • Any of the symptoms for Type 1
  • Recurring skin, gum, bladder infections
  • Minor injuries slow to heal
  • Tingling/numbness in hands and feet

NOTE: Not all signs and symptoms may be present, and for Type 2 diabetes, persons can appear to be asymptomatic.

Risk factors

Certain factors can put you at an increased risk for developing diabetes such as the following:

  • Family history: Having a parent or sibling with diabetes
  • Being overweight or obese: BMI >30
  • Certain racial and ethnic groups: African Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans, American Indians, and some Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
  • Metabolic syndrome: A combination of hypertension, high cholesterol, insulin resistance, and high triglycerides
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Injury or diseases of the liver
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Women who have had gestational diabetes, who have given birth to a baby that weighed 9 pounds or more, or who have been diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome


In Type 1 diabetes, there is no specific known prevention. To help prevent or delay the onset of Type 2 diabetes, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends the following:

  • Losing a small amount of weight (5-7 percent of total weight)
  • 30 minutes of physical activity five days per week
  • Healthy eating habits (limiting intake of saturated and trans fats and granulated sugars)


Treatment depends on the type of diabetes mellitus and varies for each individual. The main goal with diabetes treatment is to restore normal blood glucose levels with insulin for Type 1 diabetes, and with a combination of physical activity, dieting and oral medications with or without insulin for Type 2 diabetes.


There are both short-term and long-term complications that can arise. Short-term complications, associated mostly with Type 1 diabetes, include the following:

  • Hypoglycemia: A condition when blood glucose levels drop dangerously low, and if left untreated, could result in seizures, coma or even death.
  • Ketoacidosis: A condition when blood glucose levels are too high and the body uses stored body fat instead of insulin as an alternative source of fuel. This toxic state can lead to coma and possibly death.

Long-term effects of unmanaged diabetes in both Type 1 and Type 2 can cause serious health issues including heart disease, blindness, kidney failure, and lower-extremity amputations. According to the CDC reports in 2011, diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States.

Working together, people with diabetes, their support network, and their health care providers can reduce the occurrence of these and other diabetes complications by controlling the levels of blood glucose, blood pressure, and blood lipids, and by receiving other preventive care practices in a timely manner.