Kim Malsam-Rysdon, Secretary of Health

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease in which blood glucose levels are above normal. 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 to help glucose get into the cells of our bodies. With diabetes, your body either doesn't make enough insulin or can't use its own insulin as well as it should. This causes sugar to build up in your blood.  Uncontrolled diabetes can cause serious health complications including heart disease, blindness, kidney failure, and lower-extremity amputations. Diabetes is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

Types of Diabetes

Previously called insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus or juvenile-onset diabetes, Type 1 diabetes is usually first diagnosed in children and young adults, although it can occur at any age.  Type 1 may be autoimmune, genetic, or environmental and accounts for 5-10% of cases.  There is no known way to prevent this type of diabetes.

Previously called non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus or adult-onset diabetes, Type 2 diabetes is linked to obesity and physical inactivity and accounts for 90-95% of diabetes cases and most often occurs in people older than age 40.  Type 2 is associated with older age, obesity, family history of diabetes, history of gestational diabetes, impaired glucose metabolism, physical inactivity, race, and ethnicity.  Type 2 diabetes in children and adolescents, although still rare, is being diagnosed more frequently among American Indians, African Americans, Hispanic/Latinos, and Asians/Pacific Islanders.

Prediabetes is a condition in which a person has blood glucose levels higher than normal but not high enough to be classified as diabetes.  People with prediabetes are at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

Gestational diabetes is a form of glucose intolerance diagnosed during pregnancy.  Gestational diabetes develops in 2-5% of all pregnancies but usually disappears when the pregnancy is over. Women who experience gestational diabetes have an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes

Symptoms of Diabetes

Symptoms of diabetes often include:

  • Frequent urination
  • Excessive thirst
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme hunger
  • Sudden vision changes
  • Tingling or numbness in hands or feet
  • Feeling very tired much of the time
  • Very dry skin
  • Sores that are slow to heal
  • More infections than usual


For type 1 diabetes, therapies include healthy eating, physical activity, and insulin injections that are based on food intake and daily activities.

For type 2 diabetes, basic therapies include healthy eating, physical activity, and blood glucose testing.  In addition, many people with type 2 diabetes require oral medication, insulin, or both to control their blood glucose levels.

People with diabetes need to take control of their day-to-day care, and keep blood glucose levels in the appropriate range. They should also see a healthcare provider on a regular basis.  In addition, a person with diabetes may see an endocrinologist who specializes in diabetes care; ophthalmologists for eye examinations; podiatrists for routine food care; and dietitians and diabetes educators who teach the skills needed for daily diabetes management.

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