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Type 2 Diabetes: What Is It?

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When it comes to your body, you probably spend more time thinking about your hair than your hormones. For some people, though, a problem with a hormone called insulin causes a health condition called type 2 diabetes (pronounced: dye-uh-be-tees).

What Is Diabetes?

What Happens in Diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease that affects how the body uses glucose (pronounced: gloo-kose), a sugar that is the body's main source of fuel. Like your cell phone needs a battery, your body needs glucose to keep running. Here's how it should work:

  1. You eat.
  2. Glucose from the food gets into your bloodstream.
  3. Your pancreas makes a hormone called insulin (pronounced: in-suh-lin).
  4. Insulin helps the glucose get into the body's cells.
  5. Your body gets the energy it needs.

The pancreas is a long, flat gland in your belly that helps your body digest food. It also makes insulin. Insulin is like a key that opens the doors to the cells of the body. It lets the glucose in. Then the glucose can move out of the blood and into the cells.

But if someone has diabetes, the body either can't make insulin or the insulin doesn't work in the body like it should. The glucose can't get into the cells normally, so the blood sugar level gets too high. Lots of sugar in the blood makes people sick if they don't get treatment.

What Is Type 2 Diabetes?

There are two major types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. Each type causes high blood sugar levels in a different way.

In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas can't make insulin. The body can still get glucose from food, but the glucose can't get into the cells, where it's needed, and glucose stays in the blood. This makes the blood sugar level very high.

With type 2 diabetes, the body still produces insulin. But a person with type 2 diabetes doesn't respond normally to the insulin the body makes. So glucose is less able to enter the cells and do its job of supplying energy.

When glucose can't enter the cells in this way, doctors call it insulin resistance. Although there's plenty of insulin in the person's body, because it doesn't work properly, the pancreas still detects high blood sugar levels. This makes the pancreas produce even more insulin.

The pancreas may eventually wear out from working overtime to produce extra insulin. When this happens, it may no longer be able to produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels where they should be. In general, when someone's blood sugar levels are repeatedly high, it's a sign that he or she has diabetes.

Sometimes people with type 2 diabetes take pills that help the insulin in their bodies work better. Some people with type 2 diabetes also need insulin shots or an insulin pump to control their diabetes.

Who Gets Type 2 Diabetes?

What makes people more likely to develop type 2 diabetes? No one knows for sure. But experts have a few ideas about what puts a person at greater risk:

  • Most people who have type 2 diabetes are overweight. In the past, it was mainly overweight adults who got type 2 diabetes. Today, doctors are finding that more kids and teens are developing type 2 diabetes, probably because more kids and teens are overweight.
  • People with family members who have diabetes get diabetes more often. Also, people from Native American, African American, Hispanic/Latino, or Asian/Pacific Island backgrounds are also more likely to get type 2 diabetes.
  • People who are older than 10 are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than younger kids. This is probably because the extra hormones our bodies produce during puberty may make some people more insulin resistant.

How Do People Know if They Have It?

People who have type 2 diabetes may not know it because the symptoms aren't always obvious and they can take a long time to develop. Some people don't have any symptoms at all.

But when a person gets type 2 diabetes, he or she may:

  • pee a lot because the body tries to get rid of the extra blood sugar by passing it out of the body in the urine
  • drink a lot to make up for all that peeing
  • feel tired all the time because the body can't use sugar for energy properly

Also, people whose bodies are having problems using insulin or who are overweight may notice something called acanthosis nigricans. This can cause a dark ring around the neck that doesn't wash off, as well as thick, dark, velvety skin under the arms, in between fingers and toes, between the legs, or on elbows and knees.

In addition, girls with insulin resistance may have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). In PCOS, the ovaries get bigger and develop fluid-filled sacs called cysts. Girls with this condition often have irregular periods or may stop having periods altogether, and they are more likely to have excess facial and body hair.

Doctors can say for sure if a person has diabetes by testing blood samples for glucose. Even if someone doesn't have any symptoms of type 2 diabetes, doctors may order blood tests to check for it if the person has certain risk factors (for instance, being overweight).

Some kids and teens with diabetes may go to a pediatric endocrinologist — a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating children and teens living with diseases of the endocrine system, such as diabetes and growth problems.

Living With Type 2 Diabetes

People with type 2 diabetes have to pay a little more attention to what they're eating and doing than people who don't have diabetes. They may need to:

  • eat a balanced diet
  • get regular physical activity
  • take insulin or other medicines that help the body use insulin more effectively
  • check their blood sugar levels on a regular basis
  • get treatment for other health problems that can happen more often in people with type 2 diabetes, like high blood pressure or problems with the levels of fats in their blood
  • have regular checkups with doctors and other people on their diabetes health care team so they can stay healthy and get treatment for any diabetes problems

People with type 2 diabetes might have to eat smaller food portions and less salt or fat, too. Those who eat healthy foods, stay active, and get to a healthy weight may bring their blood sugar levels into a healthier range. Their doctors may even say they don't need to take any medicines at all.

Sometimes people who have diabetes feel different from their friends because they need to think about how they eat and how to control their blood sugar levels every day.

Some teens with diabetes want to deny that they even have it. They might hope that if they ignore diabetes, it will just go away. They may feel angry, depressed, helpless, or that their parents are constantly in their faces about their diabetes management.

If you've been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, it's normal to feel like your world has been turned upside down. Fortunately, your diabetes care team is there to provide answers and support. Don't hesitate to ask your doctors, dietitian, and other treatment professionals for advice and tips.

Also seek out support groups where you can talk about your feelings and find out how other people cope with the disease.

Diabetes brings challenges, of course. But teens with diabetes play sports, travel, date, go to school, and work just like their friends. There are thousands of teens with diabetes, all learning to handle the same challenges.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: April 2012

License

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses and treatment, consult your doctor.

© 1995–2014 The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth. All rights reserved.

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