What is the Difference Between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes?

What is the Difference Between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes?

As a type 1 diabetic I soon came to realise that there is a lot of confusion out there as to the the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes. The media will often lump both conditions together under the single 'diabetes' umbrella, but the truth is they are very different.

Before we dive into the differences between these conditions, it's important to understand what insulin is and what it does. Produced by the pancreas, insulin is a very important hormone that regulates blood glucose and helps store excess glucose in the liver. If you don't have diabetes, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose when you eat. The pancreas responds by producing insulin which acts like a key, unlocking the body's cells so the glucose can enter and be used as a source of energy. Excess glucose is stored in the liver in the form of glycogen. When you're not eating and insulin levels drop the liver can release this glycogen into the bloodstream in the form of glucose. This regulates blood glucose, keeping it within a very narrow range all day long.

So what are the distinctions between T1 and T2 diabetes? Perhaps the main difference is that type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune disease. The immune system mistakenly attacks the beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin which means insulin can no longer be produced. In contrast, type 2 diabetes refers to the body becoming insulin resistant. The body is still able to produce insulin but the body can't use it effectively.

The cause of type 1 diabetes is currently unknown but it is not associated with lifestyle or bodyweight. On the other hand, type 2 diabetes is normally associated with being inactive, overweight or having a family history of the condition. Type 1 diabetes is commonly diagnosed in childhood whereas type 2 diabetes is more often diagnosed in adults over 40.

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes can have the same symptoms pre-diagnosis. These include excessive thirst, frequent urination, fatigue, unintentional weight loss, poor healing of cuts and blurry vision. Although the symptoms are similar, the speed at which they present themselves is often very different. Symptoms of type 1 diabetes develop very quickly, typically over a few weeks whereas symptoms of type 2 diabetes develop much more slowly and can be easier to miss. In fact an estimated 1 million people in the UK are currently living with undiagnosed type 2 diabetes. Some can live with the condition for several years without knowing. Check out my 'What are the Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes?" blog for more details.

When it comes to treatments, type 1 diabetes can only be managed with exogenous insulin. The insulin is usually administered through injections or an insulin pump. Insulin is typically taken in two forms: rapid insulin and basal insulin. Rapid insulin is normally taken a few minutes before meals and works shortly after, lasting for around 2-4 hours. The basal, or background, insulin is normally taken one time per day and lasts for around 24 hours. This provides the body with a constant supply of insulin to lower high resting blood glucose levels. There is currently no cure for type 1 diabetes so the condition can only be managed.

In contrast, type 2 diabetes can be treated in several ways. Initially it is treated with diet and exercise in order to manage bodyweight and in turn improve insulin sensitivity. Often type 2 diabetics will require medication in the form of tablets or insulin although it is possible to come off medication as insulin sensitivity improves.

If untreated, both type 1 and type 2 diabetes can lead to serious complications such as kidney damage, eye damage, nerve damage, heart disease, strokes and even amputations. That's why it's important to understand the symptoms and act swiftly to begin managing the condition. When treated, type 2 diabetes can be reversed and type 1 diabetics can effectively control blood glucose levels to avoid adverse long term side effects and live a normal life.

While type 1 and type 2 diabetes share similar names they are very different conditions. Although their causes, risk factors and management may be distinct, the seriousness of both is very much alike. Be sure to talk with your doctor if you are experiencing any symptoms of type 1 or 2 diabetes.


Very simple but explicit description of diabetes. Have shown this article to family and friends who ask questions about my Type 1.

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