What is diabetes – and how many different types are there?

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a disorder of metabolism — the way the body uses digested food for growth and energy. Most of the food people eat is broken down into glucose, the form of sugar in the blood. Glucose is the main source of fuel for the body.

After digestion, glucose passes into the bloodstream, where it is used by cells for growth and energy. For glucose to get into cells, insulin must be present. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas, a large gland behind the stomach.

When people eat, the pancreas automatically produces the right amount of insulin to move glucose from blood into the cells. In people with diabetes, however, the pancreas either produces little or no insulin, or the cells do not respond appropriately to the insulin that is produced. Glucose builds up in the blood, overflows into the urine, and passes out of the body in the urine. Thus, the body loses its main source of fuel even though the blood contains large amounts of glucose.

What are the types of diabetes?

woman-medical-scientist-myriaThe three main types of diabetes are

  • type 1 diabetes
  • type 2 diabetes
  • gestational diabetes

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease results when the body’s system for fighting infection — the immune system — turns against a part of the body. In diabetes, the immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. The pancreas then produces little or no insulin. A person who has type 1 diabetes must take insulin daily to live.

At present, scientists do not know exactly what causes the body’s immune system to attack the beta cells, but they believe that autoimmune, genetic, and environmental factors, possibly viruses, are involved. Type 1 diabetes accounts for about 5 to 10 percent of diagnosed diabetes in the United States. It develops most often in children and young adults but can appear at any age.

Symptoms of type 1 diabetes usually develop over a short period, although beta cell destruction can begin years earlier. Symptoms may include increased thirst and urination, constant hunger, weight loss, blurred vision, and extreme fatigue. If not diagnosed and treated with insulin, a person with type 1 diabetes can lapse into a life-threatening diabetic coma, also known as diabetic ketoacidosis.

Type 2 Diabetes

The most common form of diabetes is type 2 diabetes. About 90 to 95 percent of people with diabetes have type 2. This form of diabetes is most often associated with older age, obesity, family history of diabetes, previous history of gestational diabetes, physical inactivity, and certain ethnicities. About 80 percent of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese.



Type 2 diabetes is increasingly being diagnosed in children and adolescents, especially among African American, Mexican American, and Pacific Islander youth.

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When type 2 diabetes is diagnosed, the pancreas is usually producing enough insulin, but for unknown reasons the body cannot use the insulin effectively, a condition called insulin resistance. After several years, insulin production decreases. The result is the same as for type 1 diabetes—glucose builds up in the blood and the body cannot make efficient use of its main source of fuel.

The symptoms of type 2 diabetes develop gradually. Their onset is not as sudden as in type 1 diabetes. Symptoms may include fatigue, frequent urination, increased thirst and hunger, weight loss, blurred vision, and slow healing of wounds or sores. Some people have no symptoms.

Gestational diabetes

Some women develop gestational diabetes late in pregnancy. Although this form of diabetes usually disappears after the birth of the baby, women who have had gestational diabetes have a 40 to 60 percent chance of developing type 2 diabetes within 5 to 10 years. Maintaining a reasonable body weight and being physically active may help prevent development of type 2 diabetes.

About 3 to 8 percent of pregnant women in the United States develop gestational diabetes. As with type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes occurs more often in some ethnic groups and among women with a family history of diabetes. Gestational diabetes is caused by the hormones of pregnancy or a shortage of insulin. Women with gestational diabetes may not experience any symptoms.

Other types of diabetes

A number of other types of diabetes exist. A person may exhibit characteristics of more than one type. For example, in latent autoimmune diabetes in adults (LADA), also called type 1.5 diabetes or double diabetes, people show signs of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

Other types of diabetes include those caused by

  • genetic defects of the beta cell — the part of the pancreas that makes insulin — such as maturity-onset diabetes of the young (MODY) or neonatal diabetes mellitus (NDM)
  • genetic defects in insulin action, resulting in the body’s inability to control blood glucose levels, as seen in leprechaunism and the Rabson-Mendenhall syndrome
  • diseases of the pancreas or conditions that damage the pancreas, such as pancreatitis and cystic fibrosis
  • excess amounts of certain hormones resulting from some medical conditions — such as cortisol in Cushing’s syndrome — that work against the action of insulin
  • medications that reduce insulin action, such as glucocorticoids, or chemicals that destroy beta cells
  • infections, such as congenital rubella and cytomegalovirus
  • rare immune-mediated disorders, such as stiff-man syndrome, an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system
  • genetic syndromes associated with diabetes, such as Down syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome
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Latent Autoimmune Diabetes in Adults (LADA)

People who have LADA show signs of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Diagnosis usually occurs after age 30. Researchers estimate that as many as 10 percent of people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes have LADA. Some experts believe that LADA is a slowly developing kind of type 1 diabetes because patients have antibodies against the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas.

Most people with LADA still produce their own insulin when first diagnosed, like those with type 2 diabetes. In the early stages of the disease, people with LADA do not require insulin injections. Instead, they control their blood glucose levels with meal planning, physical activity, and oral diabetes medications. However, several years after diagnosis, people with LADA must take insulin to control blood glucose levels. As LADA progresses, the beta cells of the pancreas may no longer make insulin because the body’s immune system has attacked and destroyed them, as in type 1 diabetes.

Diabetes Caused by Genetic Defects of the Beta Cell

Genetic defects of the beta cell cause several forms of diabetes. For example, monogenic forms of diabetes result from mutations, or changes, in a single gene. In most cases of monogenic diabetes, the gene mutation is inherited. In the remaining cases, the gene mutation develops spontaneously. Most mutations in monogenic diabetes reduce the body’s ability to produce insulin. Genetic testing can diagnose most forms of monogenic diabetes.

NDM and MODY are the two main forms of monogenic diabetes. NDM is a form of diabetes that occurs in the first 6 months of life. Infants with NDM do not produce enough insulin, leading to an increase in blood glucose. NDM can be mistaken for the much more common type 1 diabetes, but type 1 diabetes usually occurs after the first 6 months of life. More information about the two types of NDM, permanent neonatal diabetes and transient neonatal diabetes mellitus, is provided in the fact sheet Monogenic Forms of Diabetes, available online from the NDIC at diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/mody.

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MODY usually first occurs during adolescence or early adulthood. However, MODY sometimes remains undiagnosed until later in life. A number of different gene mutations have been shown to cause MODY, all of which limit the pancreas’ ability to produce insulin. This process leads to the high blood glucose levels characteristic of diabetes. More information about specific types of MODY is provided in the fact sheet Monogenic Forms of Diabetes.

Diabetes Caused by Genetic Defects in Insulin Action

A number of types of diabetes result from genetic defects in insulin action. Changes to the insulin receptor may cause mild hyperglycemia—high blood glucose—or severe diabetes. Symptoms may include acanthosis nigricans, a skin condition characterized by darkened skin patches, and, in women, enlarged and cystic ovaries plus virilization and the development of masculine characteristics such as excess facial hair. Two syndromes in children, leprechaunism and the Rabson-Mendenhall syndrome, cause extreme insulin resistance.

Diabetes Caused by Diseases of the Pancreas

Injuries to the pancreas from trauma or disease can cause diabetes. This category includes pancreatitis, infection, and cancer of the pancreas. Cystic fibrosis and hemochromatosis can also damage the pancreas enough to cause diabetes.

Diabetes Caused by Endocrinopathies

Excess amounts of certain hormones that work against the action of insulin can cause diabetes. These hormones and their related conditions include growth hormone in acromegaly, cortisol in Cushing’s syndrome, glucagon in glucagonoma, and epinephrine in pheochromocytoma.

Diabetes Caused by Medications or Chemicals

A number of medications and chemicals can interfere with insulin secretion, leading to diabetes in people with insulin resistance. These medications and chemicals include pentamidine, nicotinic acid, glucocorticoids, thyroid hormone, phenytoin (Dilantin), and Vacor, a rat poison.

Diabetes Caused by Infections

Several infections are associated with the occurrence of diabetes, including congenital rubella, coxsackievirus B, cytomegalovirus, adenovirus, and mumps.

Rare Immune-mediated Types of Diabetes

Some immune-mediated disorders are associated with diabetes. About one-third of people with stiff-man syndrome develop diabetes. In other autoimmune diseases, such as systemic lupus erythematosus, patients may have anti-insulin receptor antibodies that cause diabetes by interfering with the binding of insulin to body tissues.

Other Genetic Syndromes Sometimes Associated with Diabetes

Many genetic syndromes are associated with diabetes. These conditions include Down syndrome, Klinefelter’s syndrome, Huntington’s chorea, porphyria, Prader-Willi syndrome, and diabetes insipidus.





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