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Pediatric Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus Clinical Presentation

  • Author: William H Lamb, MD, MBBS, FRCP(Edin), FRCP, FRCPCH; Chief Editor: Stephen Kemp, MD, PhD  more...
Updated: Sep 14, 2015


The most easily recognized symptoms of type 1 diabetes mellitus (T1DM) are secondary to hyperglycemia, glycosuria, and DKA.


Hyperglycemia alone may not cause obvious symptoms, although some children report general malaise, headache, and weakness. Children may also appear irritable and become ill-tempered. The main symptoms of hyperglycemia are secondary to osmotic diuresis and glycosuria.


This condition leads to increased urinary frequency and volume (eg, polyuria), which is particularly troublesome at night (eg, nocturia) and often leads to enuresis in a previously continent child. These symptoms are easy to overlook in infants because of their naturally high fluid intake and diaper/napkin use.


Increased thirst, which may be insatiable, is secondary to the osmotic diuresis causing dehydration.

Weight loss

Insulin deficiency leads to uninhibited gluconeogenesis, causing breakdown of protein and fat. Weight loss may be dramatic, although the child's appetite usually remains good. Failure to thrive and wasting may be the first symptoms noted in an infant or toddler and may precede frank hyperglycemia.

Nonspecific malaise

Although this condition may be present before symptoms of hyperglycemia or as a separate symptom of hyperglycemia, it is often only retrospectively recognized.

Symptoms of ketoacidosis

These symptoms include the following:

  • Severe dehydration
  • Smell of ketones
  • Acidotic breathing (ie, Kussmaul respiration), masquerading as respiratory distress
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Drowsiness and coma

Additional symptoms

Hyperglycemia impairs immunity and renders a child more susceptible to recurrent infection, particularly of the urinary tract, skin, and respiratory tract. Candidiasis may develop, especially in the groin and in flexural areas.


Physical Examination

Apart from wasting and mild dehydration, children with early diabetes have no specific clinical findings. A physical examination may reveal findings associated with other autoimmune endocrinopathies, which have a higher incidence in children with type 1 diabetes mellitus (eg, thyroid disease with symptoms of overactivity or underactivity and possibly a palpable goiter).

Cataracts are rarely presenting problems ; they typically occur in girls with a long prodrome of mild hyperglycemia.

Necrobiosis lipoidica usually, but not exclusively, occurs in people with diabetes. Necrobiosis most often develops on the front of the lower leg as a well-demarcated, red, atrophic area. The condition is associated with injury to dermal collagen, granulomatous inflammation, and ulceration. The cause of necrobiosis is unknown, and the condition is difficult to manage. It is also associated with poor metabolic control and a greater risk of developing other diabetes-related complications.

Diabetic retinopathy

The first symptoms of diabetic retinopathy are dilated retinal venules and the appearance of capillary microaneurysms, a condition known as background retinopathy. These changes may be reversible or their progression may be halted with improved diabetic control, although in some patients the condition initially worsens.

Subsequent changes in background retinopathy are characterized by increased vessel permeability and leaking plasma that forms hard exudates, followed by capillary occlusion and flame-shaped hemorrhages. The patient may not notice these changes unless the macula is involved. Laser therapy may be required at this stage to prevent further vision loss.

Proliferative retinopathy follows, with further vascular occlusion, retinal ischemia, and proliferation of new retinal blood vessels and fibrous tissue; the condition then progresses to hemorrhage, scarring, retinal detachment, and blindness. Prompt retinal laser therapy may prevent blindness in the later stages, so regular screening is vital.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

William H Lamb, MD, MBBS, FRCP(Edin), FRCP, FRCPCH Consultant Paediatric Diabetologist, The Great North Children's Hospital, The Royal Victoria Infirmary; Honorary Clinical Lecturer, University of Newcastle upon Tyne; Honorary Clinical Lecturer, University of Durham, UK

William H Lamb, MD, MBBS, FRCP(Edin), FRCP, FRCPCH is a member of the following medical societies: British Medical Association, Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, British Society of Paediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes, International Society for Pediatric and Adolescent Diabetes

Disclosure: Serve(d) as a speaker or a member of a speakers bureau for: Eli Lily and Company.

Specialty Editor Board

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

George P Chrousos, MD, FAAP, MACP, MACE, FRCP(London) Professor and Chair, First Department of Pediatrics, Athens University Medical School, Aghia Sophia Children's Hospital, Greece; UNESCO Chair on Adolescent Health Care, University of Athens, Greece

George P Chrousos, MD, FAAP, MACP, MACE, FRCP(London) is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, American Pediatric Society, American Society for Clinical Investigation, Association of American Physicians, Endocrine Society, Pediatric Endocrine Society, Society for Pediatric Research, American College of Endocrinology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Stephen Kemp, MD, PhD Former Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Section of Pediatric Endocrinology, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Medicine, Arkansas Children's Hospital

Stephen Kemp, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, American Pediatric Society, Endocrine Society, Phi Beta Kappa, Southern Medical Association, Southern Society for Pediatric Research

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Arlan L Rosenbloom, MD Adjunct Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics, University of Florida College of Medicine; Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics; Fellow of the American College of Epidemiology

Arlan L Rosenbloom, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Epidemiology, American Pediatric Society, Endocrine Society, Pediatric Endocrine Society, Society for Pediatric Research, Florida Chapter of The American Academy of Pediatrics, Florida Pediatric Society, International Society for Pediatric and Adolescent Diabetes

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


The author would like to thank Dr. Tim Cheetham and Dr. Debbie Matthews, Colleagues at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne, for reading through the manuscript and for years of support.

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Possible mechanism for development of type 1 diabetes.
The effects of insulin deficiency.
Representation of activity profile of some available insulins.
Some of the available insulin injection devices.
A selection of available insulin pumps.
Some of the available blood glucose monitors.
Diabetes Sick Day Rules.
Taking Diabetes Back to School.
Carbs for Kids-Count Them In: The Constant Carbohydrates Diet.
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