Diabetes awareness month: What is the difference between type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes?

Diabetes is one of the most common chronic conditions in the United States today, with almost 30.3 million people struggling to control their blood sugar.

It is the seventh cause of death and the number one cause of kidney failure, blindness of appearance in adults and amputation of lower limbs.

Most people with diabetes have type 2 diabetes, which is often badociated with lifestyle choices and genetics. It is the type of diabetes that is caused because the body has problems using insulin properly or can not produce enough.

About 1.25 million people suffer from type 1 diabetes, which is an autoimmune disorder. It is the type of diabetes that is the result of the pancreas not producing insulin.

PHOTO: A patient with diabetes waits in the waiting room of a clinic in South Los Angeles, on August 7, 2012.Los Angeles Times through Getty Images, ARCHIVE
A patient with diabetes waits in the waiting room of a clinic in South Los Angeles on August 7, 2012.

Both conditions give rise to difficulties in regulating the glucose or sugar levels of a body, but due to very different reasons.

Since November is Diabetes Awareness Month, it's a good time to answer frequently asked questions about the disease.

What is the diabetes?

So let's start with what happens in a normal person without diabetes. When you eat a meal, your body begins to digest it in protein, sugar and fat.

An organ called pancreas detects the sugar absorbed and produces a hormone called insulin, which then extracts the sugar (or glucose) from the food you just swallowed and in different parts of your body so it can be used as energy.

In diabetes, your body does not make enough insulin or you can not use it as well as you should. If you do not have enough insulin, there is too much glucose left in the bloodstream, which can cause serious health problems over time, such as heart disease, kidney disease or loss of vision.

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

Diabetes type 1

In patients with type 1 diabetes (T1DM), your pancreas can not produce insulin at all, due to an autoimmune condition by which the body attacks itself. People are diagnosed more often when they are children or young adults, and the symptoms often develop quickly. They may report that they are very thirsty, that they go to the bathroom very often, that they lose weight even though they eat normally and that they feel very exhausting.

PHOTO: A CDC chart talks about type 1 diabetes.CDC
A chart from the CDC talks about type 1 diabetes.

People with T1DM need to take insulin every day to survive, and currently, there is no known way to prevent or cure T1DM. They should monitor their blood glucose levels several times a day and night, and take insulin several times a day based on their body makeup, blood sugar and what they eat.

Can I get T1DM?

Previously it was thought that T1DM was only in children and was previously called "juvenile diabetes", but now we know that young adults and even older adults can develop T1DM. It is not something contagious, nor related to your lifestyle. Rather, it is an autoimmune condition, by which your body develops antibodies against its own pancreas and gradually destroys the ability of the pancreas to produce insulin.

Type 2 diabetes

In patients with type 2 diabetes (DM2), the body has become resistant and needs more insulin or its pancreas does not produce enough insulin. Your body has difficulty keeping blood glucose at normal levels.

T2DM is not caused by the consumption of sugar itself, but by a variety of lifestyle and genetic factors.

Can I get T2DM?

This is the most common form of diabetes in adults, and unfortunately, the number of people affected, including children, in the United States, continues to rise. This type of diabetes is badociated with obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or a family history of T2DM.

PHOTO: A CDC chart talks about type 2 diabetes.CDC
A chart from the CDC talks about type 2 diabetes.

If you have any of these conditions, it is important that you see your primary care doctor regularly for a test for diabetes.

Can I know if I have diabetes? How is it diagnosed?

Most commonly, it is diagnosed with a blood test, either a high glucose level before eating or something called hemoglobin A1c, which is an average blood sugar for three months.

If your glucose level is high, you may feel symptoms such as thirsting all the time, urinating more than usual, weight loss, blurred vision or fatigue. Sometimes, people with type 1 diabetes are very sick, with something called diabetic ketoacidosis, because they do not have enough insulin in their body.

This can be a fatal condition that requires hospitalization to help correct it.

If you are taking medications that can lower your blood sugar level, such as insulin, a low blood sugar level can cause sweating, tremors, uncharacteristic behavior, or disorientation. If it goes down a lot, it can even result in coma and death if it is not treated quickly with glucose or a medication called glucagon.

PHOTO: A person receives a diabetes test during the free Care Harbor LA medical clinic in Los Angeles on September 11, 2014.Mario Anzuoni / Reuters, ARCHIVE
A person receives a diabetes test during the free Care Harbor LA medical clinic in Los Angeles on September 11, 2014.

If you notice any of these symptoms, you should notify your doctor.

How do I treat diabetes? Is there a cure?

Unfortunately, diabetes is a chronic disease without a cure. For people with type 1 diabetes, the only treatment so far is insulin. For people with type 2 diabetes, in addition to changes in diet, there are many options for medications that vary from pills to injections.

Some types of bariatric surgery may be helpful in decreasing the amount of medication that people with T2DM should take. Many innovative technologies are being developed to help improve the daily lives of people with diabetes.

Although type 1 and type 2 diabetes are invisible to people who do not have it, having too high or too low a blood sugar level can be very dangerous. But with good control and continuous improvement in medication and technology, many people with diabetes can lead a happy and satisfying life.

Tiffany Yeh, M.D., is an endocrinology fellow at the Weill Cornell Presbyterian Medical Center in New York and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.

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