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Diabetes is a life-long condition marked by high levels of sugar in the blood. If you have diabetes, your pancreas does not make enough insulin (a hormone that controls blood sugar), or your body does not properly respond to insulin. Insulin delivers fuel from the bloodstream into fat, muscle and liver cells.

The diabetes care experts at UW Health treat every aspect of your condition. We look at your health from all angles and help you manage diabetes with exercise, nutrition and medicine. Our classes and support groups teach you how to live with diabetes.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Understanding diabetes

Diabetes impacts how your body breaks down, or metabolizes, food.

When you digest food:

  • A sugar called glucose enters the bloodstream. Glucose fuels the body.

  • An organ called the pancreas makes insulin. Insulin moves glucose from the bloodstream into muscle, fat and liver cells.

When your body doesn’t have enough insulin or can’t use it well, blood sugar can’t move into the cells.

There are two major types of diabetes, Type 1 and Type 2.

What are the differences?

If you have Type 1 diabetes, your body makes either no insulin or not enough. You need daily insulin injections for your body to work well and digest the food you eat. Type 1 diabetes typically develops in children and young adults but can start at any age. There are two forms of Type 1 diabetes:

  • Immune-mediated diabetes: An autoimmune condition and the most common kind of Type 1 diabetes. Your body's immune system destroys or tries to destroy the pancreas cells that make insulin.

  • Idiopathic Type 1 diabetes: A rare type whose cause is unknown.

If you have Type 2 diabetes, your pancreas does not make enough insulin to keep your blood glucose levels healthy or your body does not use insulin properly. Type 2 diabetes is:

  • A chronic condition with no cure

  • More common in older adults and people who are obese

  • The most common type of diabetes, accounting for up to 95 percent of diabetes cases

  • Mostly in adults

Type 1 diabetes

Causes, symptoms and complications

Type 1 diabetes occurs when your body's immune system attacks and destroys the pancreas cells that make insulin. Without insulin, glucose cannot enter your body’s cells, and it builds up in the blood. The cells starve. The exact cause of Type 1 diabetes is unknown. Doctors think genetic and environmental factors like viruses are involved.

Type 1 diabetes often appears suddenly. Common symptoms include:

  • Blurred vision

  • Extreme hunger combined with weight loss

  • Extreme weakness and fatigue

  • Frequent urination

  • High levels of sugar in the blood when tested

  • High levels of sugar in the urine when tested

  • In children, symptoms may be similar to those of having the flu

  • Irritability and mood changes

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Unusual thirst

The symptoms of Type 1 diabetes can mirror other medical conditions. Be sure to see your doctor for a diagnosis.

Complications of Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes can cause many health problems. The most common complications include:

  • Ketoacidosis: Also known as a diabetic coma, this condition causes loss of consciousness from untreated or poorly managed diabetes.

  • Hyperglycemia: This is high blood sugar, which can be a sign that diabetes is not well controlled.

  • Hypoglycemia: This is low blood sugar, sometimes called an insulin reaction. This occurs when blood sugar drops too low.

Type 2 diabetes

Causes, symptoms and risks

Type 2 diabetes happens when your body doesn’t make enough insulin or can’t use the insulin that’s available. While the cause of the condition is not known, genetics appear to play a part. Type 2 diabetes runs in families. You can inherit a tendency to develop Type 2 diabetes. Usually, you need a contributing factor like obesity to bring on the disease.

Many people with Type 2 diabetes have no symptoms. Symptoms can be mild and easy to confuse with signs of aging. The most common symptoms are similar to those for Type 1 diabetes and include:

  • Blurred vision

  • Dry, itchy skin

  • Extreme hunger with loss of weight

  • Extreme weakness and fatigue

  • Frequent infections that are not easily healed

  • Frequent urination

  • High levels of sugar in the blood when tested

  • High levels of sugar in the urine when tested

  • In children, symptoms may be similar to those of having the flu

  • Irritability and mood changes

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Tingling or loss of feeling in the hands or feet

  • Unusual thirst

Risk factors for Type 2 diabetes

You have a higher chance of getting Type 2 diabetes if you have one or more of these risk factors:

  • Age (people over the age of 45 are at higher risk for diabetes)

  • Being overweight

  • Family history of diabetes

  • History of gestational diabetes, or giving birth to a baby that weighed more than 9 pounds

  • Lack of regular exercise

  • Low levels of HDL (high-density lipoprotein), the "good" cholesterol

  • Race and ethnicity: African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans are at higher risk for Type 2 diabetes

Treatments and research

Diabetes treatments

Whether you have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, the goal of treatment is to keep your blood sugar level as close to normal as possible. To achieve this, you need to live a healthy lifestyle and monitor your blood sugar levels.

You can manage your diabetes with:

  • Appropriate diet (to control blood sugar levels)

  • Exercise (to lower and help your body use blood sugar)

  • Regular monitoring of your hemoglobin A1c levels

  • The hemoglobin A1c test shows the average amount of sugar in your blood over the last three months. Your results show if your blood sugar levels are under control.

  • Testing generally occurs at least twice a year if your blood sugar level is in the target range and stable.

  • Testing occurs more frequently if your blood sugar level is unstable.

If you have Type 1 diabetes, you need daily insulin injections to keep your blood sugar level within normal ranges.

Your treatment might also include:

  • Pancreas transplant to give your body the ability to make insulin

  • Self-monitoring of your blood sugar levels several times a day

  • Self-monitoring of ketone levels in your urine several times a day

If you have Type 2 diabetes, you may be able to control your blood sugar levels by losing weight, eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise. These changes do not work for everyone.

Treatment often includes:

  • Insulin replacement therapy

  • Oral medicines to control blood sugar

  • Regular foot inspections

  • Weight control

Pre-diabetes and diabetes prevention 

If your blood glucose levels are higher than normal but not high enough for a diabetes diagnosis, you have pre-diabetes. Many people with pre-diabetes develop Type 2 diabetes within 10 years. Pre-diabetes increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. 

You can prevent diabetes or delay its onset by living an active lifestyle, losing weight and doing regular, moderate physical activity.

Advancing diabetes care through research

At UW Health, our diabetes doctors and researchers study diabetes and new ways to prevent and treat the condition. We are investigating:

  • Gene involvement in Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes

  • Genetic markers for Type 1 diabetes

  • Using inhalers and pills to give insulin

Complications of diabetes can lead to falls and fractures. The University of Wisconsin Osteoporosis Clinical Research Program studies osteoporosis and prevention.

Learn more

Meet our team

Endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism care

Your diabetes care team includes experts in endocrinology and nutrition who support your efforts to live well with diabetes. The members of your team include:

  • Clinical medical assistant

  • Licensed practical nurse

  • Pharmacist

  • Primary care doctor

  • Registered nurse diabetes educator

  • Registered nurse

  • Registered dietitian

Your role on the care team

You manage your diabetes every day. At UW Health, we help you learn as much as you can to manage your blood sugars and complete routine lab work and exams on time. It’s important that you prepare for your clinic visits.

You can remember what to tell your care team with the acronym SUGAR:

Tell your care team if you feel depressed or frustrated with your diabetes, dizzy, weak or extremely tired. Talk to your doctor if you have tingling in your feet or other unusual symptoms.

Ask for more information about your lab test results, clinic procedures and exams.

Talk to your care team about managing your diabetes long term with diet, exercise, testing and diabetes education classes.

Bring a written list of questions and concerns to talk about with your doctor. Ask for information and educational materials.

At each clinic appointment, bring all the medicines you take. Tell your doctor how you take each one, including diabetes medication and other prescriptions, vitamins, herbal supplements and over-the-counter medications.

Patient support

Learn strategies for staying healthy with diabetes

At UW Health, we provide a variety of resources to help you live well with diabetes. They include:

More resources

In Illinois:

Diabetes counseling available at the SwedishAmerican Diabetes Self-Management Center in Rockford, IL. For more information call (779) 696-2498.

In Madison, WI:

View calendar

Check out this list of online resources curated by our diabetes team. It includes information about diabetes self-management, exercise and nutrition.

View resources

Learn diabetes management skills from UW Health patients. Watch the video "My Life, My Diabetes, My Story."

Watch video


Diabetes care close to home

We provide endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism care and treatment at UW Health clinics in Madison, Wis. and Rockford, Ill.

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