People with type 1 diabetes aren’t unreasonable—they just want you to know a few basic things! If you know a person with type 1, they will likely be happy to answer your questions… within reason! But your friends with type 1 work hard every day, so if you do a bit of homework to find out what the condition on your own, it won’t go unappreciated!
Here are 15 things people with type 1 diabetes want you to know:
1. The Basics
No one expects you to be a doctor, but if you know the very basics of how diabetes works, you’ll be ahead of the curve. So real quick…
- Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder. The cause is unknown, there is no cure, and it won’t go away (not even with the cure you heard about on the internet).
- In type 1, a person’s immune system destroys the islet cells in the pancreas. This is important because the islet cells make insulin, and without insulin, a person can’t absorb the energy (glucose) from food.
- A person with type 1 must inject insulin or they will die.
- Insulin is normally responsible for regulating blood sugar, but without cells that make insulin, a person has to work very hard to keep their blood sugar within a healthy range.
- Insulin keeps a person with type 1 alive, but it’s not a cure. The person will still deal with a lifetime of management and possible complications, but they can still live a full life!
2. The difference between type 1 and type 2
You may have heard of gestational diabetes that women can get while pregnant or even some of the rarer forms like type 1.5 or MODY, but type 1 and type 2 are the main forms. There are many more people with type 2 than type 1: In 2015, there were 30.3 million Americans with diabetes, and 1.25 million of those were people with type 1.
While type 1 diabetes is caused by an immune system attack, type 2 is caused by a number of factors, some of which (but not all) have to do with lifestyle choices. So really, it’s not cool to think that anyone with diabetes caused it themselves by eating too much sugar. Type 2 involves insulin resistance, which means a person’s body doesn’t respond well to insulin. A person with type 2 may be able to control their condition with lifestyle changes and medication. For those with type 1, insulin is the only option.
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3. Accessories 101
A person with type 1 comes with gear! There are gadgets for monitoring blood sugar and administering insulin. Here are the tools you’ll be most likely to see with your type 1 bestie:
- Continuous glucose monitor (CGM). This is a wearable device sometimes worn on the arm or the belly that takes blood sugar information and sends it to a device like a smart phone. This keeps the wearer informed of their blood glucose (or blood sugar) levels and lets them know when they need to adjust insulin dosing.
- Blood sugar meter. This is another way to check blood glucose that a person might use instead of or in addition to a CGM. It’s a small device that measures blood glucose from a test strip where someone puts a drop of blood.
- Test Strips. These are the strips that go into the blood sugar meter. Please don’t ask for one… they’re not cheap!
- Lancet Device and Lancets. A lancet device is the thing that looks like a pen that pricks a person’s finger so they can get a drop of blood for the test strip. The lancets are the little needles that go inside the device.
- Insulin Pump. Some with type 1 choose to wear an insulin pump. This is a small device usually clipped to someone’s clothes and either directly attached or attached via a tube to the person’s body. The pump injects insulin via a needle placed just under the skin.
- Insulin Pen. This is what someone will use to inject insulin if they don’t use a pump or if their pump is not working.
- Snacks or Drinks. When blood sugar goes too low, a person with type 1 will need a quick source of glucose like candy, a sugary drink, or even glucose tabs. Having an available glucose source could be a matter of life or death, so please don’t ask to share!
4. It’s Just Blood
Having any type of diabetes is a lot of work, and it’s frustrating enough without having to worry about whether or not someone is going to freak out about a finger stick or insulin injection. It’s not really fair to expect a person to run to the bathroom each time they need to test or inject—it would be like someone without diabetes being expected to run to the bathroom every time they needed a drink of water. Plus, a bathroom can be a smelly, unsanitary place to do what needs to be a sanitary job.
If you are squeamish about blood, politely excuse yourself or simply turn your head. Thinking about injections and finger pricks as part of your friend’s everyday life will hopefully help you feel more comfortable.
5. They can totally handle mealtimes on their own
You probably care about your friend, but you don’t have to do so by asking them if it’s OK if they eat whatever they’re about to put in their mouth. Because diabetes is a serious, life-threatening disease, a person dealing with it will already have been educated about how to take care of themselves and will know a lot more than someone without experience. A person with type 1 has to plan for carbohydrate intake and inject the right amount of insulin , but there’s nothing they’re forbidden from eating.
You can be helpful by letting them take the lead when picking a restaurant, keeping nutrition labels if you’re cooking, or even figuring out the carb counts. Some people with type 1 do choose to follow a low-carb diet, and in that case they’ll appreciate it if you realize it’s a way for them to manage their health, not a fad diet.