One of the best parts of my job is caring for kids’ medical needs while also having a blast at the Florida Diabetes Camp each July. At the camp, children with diabetes get to be their best selves, enjoying paddling on the lake, having s’mores by the fire and gaining the confidence and skills to achieve their full potential while living life with diabetes. A typical day in their camp life includes:

  • Checking their blood sugar a minimum of 10 times per day (and often much more), including middle-of-the-night checks
  • Counting every carbohydrate that they eat, calculating insulin doses and giving an injection or pump bolus a minimum of four times per day (but often many more times)
  • Dealing with the many different factors that can affect blood sugar including sleep, stress, exercise, dehydration, medication interactions, puberty and the Florida heat
  • Managing the inevitable high and low blood sugars
  • All while living life as a preteen kid, with all of the relationship dramas, hormones, learning and growing involved in this exciting time.

Children with diabetes are dealing with a lot, and they manage to do so while also accomplishing great things in their life. While children with diabetes and their families have to deal with the brunt of the burden that comes with living with diabetes, there are ways that we can help. During this Diabetes Awareness Month, here are a few things that we can all do to support children with diabetes and their families

1. Educate yourself about the causes of diabetes

Diabetes affects about 1 in 300 children and adolescents in the United States. It is a result of the body either not making enough insulin or not being able to use insulin properly. Insulin is a hormone that allows your body to use carbohydrates as fuel. When it’s not working, carbohydrates are broken down into sugar (glucose), which builds up in the blood and urine while fat is used as an alternate energy source. In most children and adolescents, diabetes is caused by an autoimmune attack against the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. Even though the body’s immune system is designed to fight off foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses, it mistakenly starts to destroy these cells. This is called type 1 diabetes. In another situation, an adolescent’s body is making high levels of insulin, but the body is not able to use it appropriately. Eventually, the pancreas tires out, and then these adolescents also don’t make enough insulin. This is called type 2 diabetes, and it is caused by a combination of genes, hormone imbalances and lifestyle factors. In no situation is diabetes the sole result of eating desserts. So next time you think about making a joke about getting diabetes from eating something sweet, think twice! It’s offensive to many people with diabetes, a multifaceted and difficult to manage disease that results from many complex factors.

2. Educate yourself about the signs and symptoms of diabetes

Children can get diabetes as early as infancy. Signs and symptoms can develop and progress very rapidly in kids, so if they are present, it’s important to go see a doctor. They include:

  • Increased thirst
  • Frequent urination. Children who were previously potty trained may start to have accidents overnight.
  • Weight loss
  • Extreme hunger
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Fruity smelling breath
  • Yeast infections
  • Dark skin over the back of the neck that can’t be scrubbed off (also called acanthosis nigricans). This is typically a very early sign of risk for type 2 diabetes.
  • Nausea, vomiting, belly pain and lethargy

The first two symptoms, increased thirst and frequent urination, typically occur earliest. If these have developed and your child also develops nausea, vomiting, belly pain or lethargy, it’s very important to see a doctor right away, because they may be experiencing a serious complication of low insulin levels called diabetic ketoacidosis, which can be life-threatening.

3. Educate yourself about daily life with diabetes

Life with diabetes can be complicated. Children and families are tasked with keeping their blood sugar within a certain range, but over 40 different factors affect blood sugar, which are sometimes out of their control. Many children have to check their blood sugars frequently through either finger pokes or a device called a continuous glucose monitor, and in many cases, they need to count all of their carbohydrates and dose insulin for what they eat through injections or an insulin pump. With all of these complicating factors on top of living daily life, we should try to make life easier for children with diabetes, not harder, which leads to my next point.

4. Dont stigmatize people with diabetes, support them!

  • People with diabetes are just that- people with diabetes. They are people first whose disease is a part of their daily life but does not define them. Many people with diabetes do not prefer the term “diabetic,” as in, “she’s a diabetic,” since it puts the disease before the person.
  • Choose your words carefully with empathy and awareness. For example, people with diabetes are experts in their own disease. They do not need unprompted advice about how to eat (and yes, they can eat dessert!), how to cure their disease or how to live their life.
  • Diabetes management is 24/7. So if someone needs to check their blood sugar or give insulin in front of you, don’t make them feel singled out. They should be able to inject insulin or prick their finger at a family meal, restaurant or any public place without people commenting or staring.
  • People with diabetes are not to blame for their disease. Individual behaviors and choices alone do not cause diabetes. Questions and comments from individuals that imply this are hurtful and stigmatizing.
  • Our medical system can often make life with diabetes harder rather than easier. The cost of insulin has soared over the last 15 years, and families of children with diabetes have five times the out-of-pocket medical costs as other families. They need our help and support to advocate for reduced costs.

Children and families make living with diabetes look easy to the outside world, but life with diabetes is anything but easy. This Diabetes Awareness Month, let’s come together as a community to support these amazing kids.

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