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What Type of Diabetes Do I Have?

When we hear diabetes being discussed, either by the media or by our medical team, it is usually as a general umbrella term: “diabetes.” It is quite common for a patient to not know that diabetes has ‘types,’ much less to know what ‘type’ they have. Knowing about diabetes types and diabetes management regimens might be confusing, especially since the names for these ‘types’ have changed a few times through the years. But “what’s in a name” might be important for a variety of reasons, from the simple ability to understand and relate to others, to having a safe diabetes management treatment.

We must always begin with the basic definition of diabetes:

a condition in which the body is unable to use glucose properly, either because it has stopped making enough insulin, or because its red blood cells, tissues and muscles have become resistant to insulin… or both.

This is all that diabetes is, in its general sense. How one arrives at this condition is a different matter altogether. This is considered how diabetes ‘presents itself’ or its onset. Diabetes is thus classified NOT on our use of particular medications or treatments, but on the characteristics of its onset. Although there are many types, the most common are type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

  • Type 1 Diabetes: Is a condition in which a person has a complete and sudden insulin deficiency that if not addressed quickly, may lead to coma and/or death. In most cases, this insulin deficiency has been caused by the body’s own immune system attacking the insulin-producing cells within the pancreas. This condition – while more likely to present itself in childhood – can happen at any age, and with no other indicators or triggers. It is not the same as type 2 diabetes. A person with type 1 diabetes will need exogenous insulin as an immediate and primary treatment, or be at risk of coma and/or death. There are currently no known triggers for this condition, no preventative treatments, ‘reversals,’ or cures — although the likelihood of diagnosis is higher if there are family members who already have the condition.
  • Type 2 Diabetes: Is a slow onset condition in which a person’s red blood cells, tissues and muscles, become resistant to insulin, and which may lead to an eventual insulin deficiency. Think of insulin, here, as a key to a door allowing glucose to enter cells. When the key gets ‘sticky’ it has a hard time letting glucose in. This insulin resistance (or ‘stickiness’) may be brought on by a few factors, but predominantly excess weight. The pancreas, in its efforts to clean up our bodies of excess glucose, will keep on producing ‘sticky insulin’ until the glucose is cleared away. But with time it will be less effective at its job, and the cells that produce insulin may become ‘exhausted.’ Type 2 diabetes is a slow and progressive condition that is most likely diagnosed in late adulthood – but can occur in childhood as well. The risk of developing this condition might be reduced by making appropriate lifestyle changes. A person with type 2 diabetes may start out managing their condition with diet and exercise, go on to oral medications, and eventually need exogenous insulin (while still making some insulin of their own). This is known as Insulin Dependent Type 2 diabetes, NOT type 1 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes does NOT turn into type 1 diabetes, for their onsets are different.

It is important to know what type of diabetes we have in order for medical personnel to provide us with the best treatment, whether it’s routine or emergency. The wrong treatment might mean the difference between life and death… and oftentimes, stereotypes of ‘who ought to get’ a certain type of diabetes may put a patient in danger.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.