What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic condition that affects the way the body processes blood sugar known as glucose. For your body to work properly, you need to maintain a healthy level of glucose in your blood.
Glucose is your body’s main source of energy. It comes from the carbohydrate foods you eat, such as bread, pasta, rice, cereals, fruits, starchy vegetables, milk and yoghurt. When you eat these foods, your blood stream carries the glucose around your body, where your cells convert it into energy.
Your body needs insulin, a hormone produced in your pancreas, to break down the glucose so it can enter your cells. If you have diabetes, it means your pancreas makes too little insulin, or none at all.
As a result, the glucose you eat will stay in your blood instead of being turned into energy. High levels of glucose in your blood can cause damage your heart, brain, kidneys, eyes and feet.
Types of diabetes
There are three main types of diabetes: type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. If you have type 1 diabetes it means your pancreas no longer produces the insulin you need. This means you will need to regularly monitor your blood glucose levels and either inject insulin or use an insulin pump to keep those levels within a healthy range.
Type 1 diabetes is one of the most common chronic childhood conditions in developed nations like Australia. It is often diagnosed in childhood, but can develop at any age.
Type 2 diabetes
If you have type 2 diabetes, it means your pancreas is not producing enough insulin or the insulin you are producing is not working effectively. With regular physical activity, a healthy eating plan, and regular health checks, you can manage your diabetes to live well.
Type 2 diabetes is a progressive condition. Over time you may need medication, and in some cases insulin, to manage your blood glucose levels.
Gestational diabetes is a condition you may develop during pregnancy. It will be diagnosed with a blood test and an oral glucose tolerance test when you are between 24 and 28 weeks pregnant. Gestational diabetes can be managed with diet and exercise, although some women may require medication or insulin until the baby is born.
Gestational diabetes usually disappears after the birth, although it may increase the likelihood that you will develop type 2 diabetes later in life.
You may also have heard of pre-diabetes. If you have been diagnosed with pre-diabetes, it means your blood glucose levels and insulin levels are higher than normal – but not yet high enough for a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. Making lifestyle changes can help slow down the progression of pre-diabetes to type 2 diabetes.
Use our quick and easy risk calculator to see if you are at risk of developing pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes.
If you have diabetes you may experience a range of signs and symptoms. These will present differently depending on whether you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes.
Signs and symptoms of diabetes
Type 1 diabetes signs and symptoms
Type 1 diabetes is often diagnosed in childhood, although you can develop it at any age.
The signs and symptoms of type 1 diabetes can develop suddenly over a few days or weeks. They can be severe and, if left untreated, life-threatening. Being diagnosed and treated quickly is critical.
Signs and symptoms of type 1 diabetes may include:
- Passing urine more frequently
- Excessive thirst and drinking a lot of fluids
- Unexplained weight loss
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Mood changes
- Skin infections or itching
- Oral or vaginal thrush
- Abdominal pain
- Excessive hunger
- Blurred vision
Type 2 diabetes signs and symptoms
Type 2 diabetes is a progressive condition that tends to develop gradually. As a result, the signs and symptoms may develop very slowly. You may not notice the signs or symptoms at all, or you may dismiss them as a normal part of getting older.
This can mean that by the time you notice something, you may have been living with diabetes for some years, and you could be at risk of developing complications. In some cases, those complications may be the first sign that you have diabetes.
- Passing urine more frequently, commonly noticed at night
- Dry mouth
- Being more thirsty than usual
- Feeling tired, lethargic or irritable
- Constantly feeling hungry despite having eaten
- Having cuts, sores or ulcers that heal slowly
- Itching, skin infections
- Thrush or bladder infections
- Blurred vision
- Weight changes – commonly a gradual increase in weight
- Mood swings
- Feeling dizzy
- Pain or tingling in the lower legs and/or feet
If you notice one or more of these signs or symptoms, you should make an appointment to see your doctor immediately.
Early detection and treatment of diabetes can prevent the development of serious, and in some cases life-threatening, health problems.
Diabetes facts and figures
Diabetes is Australia’s fastest growing chronic condition. Here are some key statistics about the different types of diabetes and the impact of the condition on the community.
Diabetes in Australia
- 1.9 million Australians are living with diabetes – this includes 1.4 million people who have been diagnosed and an estimated 500,000 cases of undiagnosed type 2 diabetes
- Every five minutes someone is diagnosed with diabetes, which adds up to over 300 people every day
- One in four adults over the age of 25 is living with either diabetes or pre-diabetes
- Diabetes is the seventh most common cause of death by disease in Australia
- Diabetes costs the Australian economy $16 billion every year.
Type 1 diabetes
- 127,000 Australians are currently living with type 1 diabetes
- Represents 10 per cent of all cases of diabetes and is increasing each year
- Occurs when the cells of the pancreas are destroyed by the body’s immune system, meaning that the body is unable to produce any insulin
- Requires treatment with ongoing insulin therapy
- Is not caused by lifestyle factors and has no known cause or cure
- Is often diagnosed in childhood, although it can occur at any age.
Type 2 diabetes
- 1.2 million Australians are currently living with type 2 diabetes and its estimated that a further 500,000 are currently undiagnosed
- Represents 85 to 90 per cent of all cases of diabetes and is increasing each year
- Occurs when the pancreas is not producing enough insulin, or when the insulin that is produced is not working effectively
- Risk factors include age, family history, ethnicity and lifestyle factors such as an unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity
- Almost 60 per cent of all cases of type 2 diabetes can be delayed or prevented with changes to diet and lifestyle.
- Affects one in seven pregnancies
- Is the fastest growing type of diabetes in Australia
- Occurs during pregnancy and usually goes away after the baby is born
- Women who have had gestational diabetes are at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life
- Risk factors include age, ethnicity and being above a healthy weight range when pregnant
- Gestational diabetes may also occur in women with no known risk factors and should be tested for at 24–28 weeks of pregnancy.
Common myths about diabetes
There are many myths about diabetes that are often reported as facts. Here’s the truth behind some of the common myths and misconceptions you may have heard.
Myth: Diabetes is caused by eating too much sugar.
FACT: Eating too much sugar does not cause diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder where the body’s immune system accidentally attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, progresses when insulin-producing cells are unable to produce enough insulin, or when the insulin that is produced doesn’t work properly (ie insulin resistance).
Type 2 diabetes is caused by a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors. Following a healthy eating plan and exercising regularly will help you manage your diabetes and reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Myth: It is possible to have ‘a touch of’ diabetes.
FACT: There is no such thing as ‘a touch of’ diabetes. However, you may be diagnosed with pre-diabetes, which means that your blood glucose and insulin levels are higher than normal, but not yet high enough for a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. If you are diagnosed with pre-diabetes making lifestyle changes, like improving your diet, becoming more active and quitting smoking can help slow down development of type 2 diabetes.
Myth: People with type 2 diabetes who need insulin therapy later go on to develop type 1 diabetes.
FACT: Insulin therapy is used in the management of type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes. If you have type 1 diabetes you need to take insulin to survive. If you have type 2 diabetes or gestational diabetes you may or may not need to start taking insulin after a period of time to help maintain your blood glucose levels within a healthy range. If you have type 2 diabetes and need to take insulin this does not mean that you’ve developed type 1 diabetes.
Myth: People with diabetes need to follow a ‘special diabetic diet’.
FACT: There is no such thing as a ‘diabetic diet’. Just like everyone, if you are living with diabetes you will benefit from eating a healthy diet that includes a wide variety of foods – including fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, fibre and healthy protein. It’s recommended that everyone, with or without diabetes, follow the healthy eating recommendations as per the Australian Dietary Guidelines, as appropriate for their age, gender and activity levels.
Myth: Diabetes is not a serious condition.
FACT: Diabetes is a chronic condition with the potential for serious long-term health implications. People living with type 1 diabetes need to manage their blood glucose levels via regular insulin injections, while management of type 2 diabetes may involve a range of measures including lifestyle changes, oral medications and insulin.
If you have either type of diabetes and your blood glucose levels stay above a healthy range over a long period of time you are at risk of developing serious complications such as vision loss, kidney failure, nerve damage and heart disease.
Myth: People with diabetes can’t play sport.
FACT: Physical activity is important for everyone to help support overall health and wellbeing, as well as to reduce the risk of chronic disease. Exercise is especially important for people living with diabetes as it can support diabetes management by:
- Helping to lower blood glucose levels,
- Increasing insulin sensitivity,
- Reducing the need for medication and
- Helping to maintain a healthy weight and healthy heart.
Myth: People who are living with diabetes can always feel when their blood glucose levels go too low.
FACT: This is not always the case. Some people who are living with diabetes don’t know when their blood glucose level has dropped below a healthy range and this can be dangerous. If you find it difficult to recognise the signs and symptoms that your blood glucose levels are too high or too low, it’s important to discuss this with your diabetes team.