Diabetes in Children: UK Statistics and Early Detection
Time to read 8 min
Time to read 8 min
Are you worried about a child you know with diabetes? It’s important to be educated on paediatric diabetes, but feeling overwhelmed is unnecessary. Early detection of diabetes in children is the key to a healthy and happy life.
Diabetes is becoming more common in children across the UK. There are plenty of educational materials, research, and information accessible to parents and children. Learning more about how kids live with it will ease your nerves.
It isn’t an easy and clear pathway to having a child with diabetes, but you’ll find the support you need to move forward with confidence. It’ll be a community effort to ensure children are screened and treated to reduce future health consequences.
Diabetes is a medical condition where your body can’t regulate sugar in your bloodstream. The enzyme that should do this is called insulin. For some people, their bodies don’t produce it, or the insulin doesn’t operate well enough in the system.
The result is that a person with diabetes will have extremely high blood sugar that their body can’t fix on its own. People with diabetes, therefore, need to take additional insulin doses in the form of injections so they have enough insulin to convert these sugars.
There are two types of diabetes. They differ in the way that the insulin is affected in the body. Type 1 is when your body can’t make insulin properly due to an autoimmune issue, while type 2 occurs when a body doesn’t use or make enough insulin due to lifestyle choices.
In children, type 1 diabetes is much more prevalent because there hasn't been enough time for their lifestyle choices (or parents' choices) to affect their bodies. Type 1 is genetic, so parents with diabetes need to be extra cautious in monitoring their children’s health.
The UK has around 400,000 people diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and 30,000 of those are children. 90 per cent of children with diabetes will have type 1 diabetes, but type 2 is equally on the rise in children.
The UK currently ranks as the fifth most prevalent country for childhood type 1 diabetes, behind Finland, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, and Norway. It’s an urgent concern that must be acknowledged.
In England and Wales, the overall prevalence is around 204.5 per 100,000 population.
Health inequalities are a key variable with higher rates of type 1 diabetes in the more deprived areas. When looking towards reducing the health consequences, this must be acknowledged in the approach and methodology for detection.
Paediatric diabetes is best treated when it’s discovered early. Symptoms and serious health consequences can arise rapidly, especially in type 1. Detection can happen earlier with the right screening and symptom recognition.
Early detection of diabetes can prevent a slew of long-term health consequences.
Having poor control over blood sugar throughout childhood can increase the risk factors of:
Type 1 diabetes must be diagnosed quickly, as it can be life-threatening for children. Over a quarter of children aren’t able to get a diagnosis until they enter a diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) state, which requires urgent hospital treatment.
The most common symptoms for children that have diabetes are shortened to the four T’s. Keep your eye out for these concerns:
Other symptoms might be fruity-smelling breath, abdominal pain, vomiting, and trouble breathing. Children with childhood diabetes will also get more infections and have overall poor health.
These symptoms can come on quickly and become urgent in a week or less. If these symptoms are noticed, it’s essential to go to a healthcare provider immediately.
Type 1 diabetes will display more urgent symptoms, while type 2 diabetes symptoms will typically develop slower and in a less obvious way.
There are several possible detection methods for childhood diabetes. Tests that you take may depend on the likelihood of the diagnosis and access that your provider has to certain tests. All tests will be blood tests, as the blood sugar levels must be measured.
As one of the most commonly used tests, the FBS test will measure your blood sugar after fasting overnight. It requires you to withhold from eating anything 12 hours before the test.
If the resulting level of your test is higher than 126 milligrams per deciliter, then it’s indicative of a positive result for diabetes. This test is quick and accessible, making it a common detection test.
The haemoglobin A1c test records measurements of your blood sugar levels over several months. It’s commonly used for those who are diagnosed with prediabetes and watching their levels progress. It’s a prevalent route for a provider to take for diagnosis.
It can diagnose both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Although it’s often used in older populations that are predisposed to getting diabetes, it’s not uncommon to test children with it.
Similar to the FBS test, the OGTT requires you to fast overnight. A high-sugar solution is consumed before the test, and then the blood sugar levels are measured in intervals. This tells how well you can convert sugars in a short period.
A test result of 200 mg/dL or higher is a positive test result.
Type 1 diabetes in children presents strong and obvious, but unfortunately, it can still take too long to detect. With 1 in 4 children entering the emergency state of DKA before they’re diagnosed, there must be more education to support the signs for early diagnosis.
Due to the less obvious progression of type 2 diabetes, around 40% of children who have it will not show signs during their yearly physical exams. It’s harder to diagnose upfront but can be caught if routine screenings are done.
Luckily, plenty of people in this world are dedicated to helping children with type 1 diabetes. There are currently programs being launched across the UK to screen more children for being high-risk for type 1 diabetes.
By making screening more accessible for all children in the UK, it will be easier to detect and manage health concerns earlier. This can save years of lives and help care become more equitable nationwide.
An interesting pattern has been observed in diabetes detection, where the winter and fall seasons see significantly higher diagnoses. This has been observed in numerous countries with high incidence of diabetes.
It’s believed to be due to the weighted prevalence of viral illness that brings to light the underlying sickness that diabetes can cause. 2020 and 2021’s COVID pandemic was an exception to this. Lockdowns and social isolation are believed to be the influencing factors.
The only treatment for type 1 diabetes is insulin currently, but new immunotherapy methods are being tested and reviewed for us. For those interested in studies in the UK like this, you may want to look into trials near you.
The use of an insulin pump is a necessity that helps manage blood glucose levels in people with diabetes. Glucose monitoring helps people with diabetes to know when to inject insulin into their body. This prevents the complications of extended high blood sugar in the bloodstream.
Low blood sugar is also a problem and may happen if treatment is too aggressive. People with diabetes may need to keep food on hand to ensure they can keep their blood sugar up if it dips.
A healthy diet can prevent type 2 diabetes and also help with the symptoms of those who are diagnosed with type 1 or type 2. Eating the right foods will keep blood sugar at regulated levels rather than spiking rapidly and then dropping too low.
Maintaining a healthy weight also helps people with diabetes as insulin use will be more effective than for those with extra weight.
Exercise can increase your body’s ability to use insulin effectively, helping with the control of blood sugar naturally. Muscles absorb glucose during and after physical activity, helping with the amount of sugar in the blood.
Those with type 2 diabetes may even be able to reduce their insulin dependence with proper physical activity, as it may increase insulin efficiency enough to stop the need for additional insulin pumps.
Helping reduce the poor health outcomes for diabetes starts with diabetes education. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, consider some of these resources to help.
Your child may qualify for free diabetes equipment through the NHS if you live in England, Wales, or Scotland. Some Northern Ireland healthcare teams can provide it as well. Could you speak to your healthcare team about the national guidelines to see if you fit?
You can also claim Disability Living Allowance to help cover the extra costs that having a child with diabetes racks up.
If you feel like you could benefit from speaking to someone about childhood diabetes, consider a few of these options:
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