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Type 2 diabetes in children

It used to be rare to hear about a child with type 2 diabetes. It used to be thought that if diabetes occurred in childhood, it was type 1, or juvenile-onset, diabetes. Because of the increase in obesity among children, type 2 diabetes is now found in teenagers. There are around 25,000 children and young people aged under 19 with diabetes in England and Wales Around 97% have Type 1 diabetes, 1.5% have Type 2 diabetes and 1.5% have other types of diabetes.

How can you prevent this threat to your child's health? What can you do if your child is diagnosed with type 2 diabetes?

What is type 2 diabetes in children?

Dietary carbohydrates are broken down in the body to form glucose, which circulates in the blood stream. The pancreas creates a hormone called insulin, which is needed for glucose to move from the blood into the cells of the body to be used for energy.

In type 2 diabetes, the cells in a child's body are resistant to the effects of insulin and glucose builds up in the bloodstream. Eventually, this causes glucose to reach dangerous levels in the blood.

Over time, the body becomes increasingly less able to handle all the glucose in the blood vessels. The high blood sugar can then lead to diabetes complications, such as heart disease, blindness and kidney failure.

What are the risk factors for type 2 diabetes in children?

The following risk factors are associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes in children:

  • Being overweight
  • Family history of diabetes
  • Specific ethnic groups (Asian and African Caribbean)
  • Other problems with insulin resistance (most people with type 2 diabetes in childhood are diagnosed at the start of puberty, a developmental stage where there's increased resistance)

The single greatest risk factor for type 2 diabetes in children is excess weight. Figures from the 2007/8 National Child Measurement Programme showed that 9.6% of reception children in the UK were obese, rising to 18.3% by year 6. Once a child is overweight, the chances are more than doubled that the child will develop diabetes. One or more of these factors may contribute to excess weight or obesity:

  • Unhealthy eating patterns
  • Lack of physical activity
  • An inherited tendency
  • Rarely, a hormone problem or other medical condition

In addition, as with adults, the risk of type 2 diabetes in children appears to be associated with excess abdominal weight. This obesity pattern increases the chance of insulin resistance and the risk of type 2 diabetes.

What are the symptoms of type 2 diabetes in children?

The symptoms of type 2 diabetes in children develop slowly. Initially, there may be no symptoms. Eventually, you may notice one or more of these symptoms:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Increased hunger or thirst, even after eating
  • Dry mouth
  • Frequent urination
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision
  • Heavy breathing
  • Slow healing of sores or cuts
  • Itchy skin
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet

It is time to visit your child's GP if you notice any of these symptoms of diabetes in your child.

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