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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes?

Short Answer

With type 1 diabetes, the body produces no insulin or very little insulin and daily injections of insulin are required. With type 2 diabetes, the body either produces insufficient insulin or cannot effectively use the insulin it produces. Type 2 diabetes can sometimes be controlled with diet and exercise but often other medications are needed including insulin in some cases.

Long Answer

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps regulate the amount of glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream. Glucose enters the bloodstream as part of the digestive process. In a healthy person, production of insulin is stimulated when the body detects an increase in blood sugar. Insulin assists in transferring glucose from the blood to the body's other cells where it is used for energy. Once glucose levels in the blood begin to drop, the pancreas responds by turning off the output of insulin.

In a person with diabetes, the production or effectiveness of the body's insulin is impaired. As a result, glucose levels in the bloodstream rise and, because glucose isn't being transferred to the other cells that need it, the body is starved for energy. If left untreated for long periods, persistent high blood glucose levels can result in blindness, heart, circulatory and kidney problems, nerve damage and erectile dysfunction.

Type 1 diabetes is the more severe form of the disease and is also called insulin-dependent diabetes. With this condition, the pancreas produces little or no insulin on its own so the diabetic must replace it by injecting insulin daily. Diet, exercise and weight control are also important factors in regulating blood glucose levels. Type 1 diabetes most often develops in childhood or adolescence; thus, it was formerly referred to as juvenile-onset diabetes. About 5%-10% of diabetics have type 1 diabetes.

The more common type 2 diabetes that usually emerges in adulthood is also known as non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus or adult-onset diabetes. With this condition, the pancreas produces insufficient insulin to meet the body's needs or the insulin it produces is ineffective in transferring blood glucose to other cells in the body. Sometimes diet and exercise alone will keep glucose levels under control in type 2 diabetes. However, when these measures are not enough, insulin or diabetes pills are required to help control glucose levels.

Diabetes pills for type 2 diabetes fall into five classes of drugs:

Sulfonylureas stimulate the pancreas to produce more insulin.
Biguanides work by decreasing the amount of glucose produced by the liver and by increasing the glucose absorption abilities of muscle tissue.
Sulfonylurea/Biguanide Combinations
Meglitinides stimulate the pancreas to produce more insulin.
Thiazolidinediones increase the ability of muscle tissues and fat to absorb glucose and inhibit the amount of glucose produced by the liver.
Alpha-Glucosidase Inhibitors
Alpha-glucosidase inhibitors block the breakdown of starches (which produce glucose) in the intestine and slow the breakdown of certain sugars which slows the increase in blood sugar following a meal.

Additional Information

Diabetes Dictionary: a list of terms relating to diabetes. (Canadian Diabetes Association)
Insulin & Diabetes Medications: explains insulin and the differences between type 1 and type 2 diabetes. (Canadian Diabetes Association)
Things You Should Know About Type 1 Diabetes: explains type 1 diabetes, its treatment, low and high blood glucose and other issues of interest to those with the condition. (Canadian Diabetes Association)
Type 2 diabetes: the basics: explains type 2 diabetes, its treatment, possible complications and the support systems available. (Canadian Diabetes Association)
Gestational diabetes: Preventing complications in pregnancy: describes the risk factors for this condition, its treatment and prognosis. (Canadian Diabetes Association)
Diabetes Internet Links: resources about diabetes including information on diet, health care, medical supplies, and links to diabetes support sites and online forums. (Diabetes Mall)
Diabetes Information: brief descriptions of type 1 and type 2 diabetes and related information with links to articles on each topic. (American Diabetes Association)
Your Pancreas and Insulin: an illustrated guide describing how the pancreas works to produce insulin and glucagon. (MyDr)
How Diabetes Works: a comprehensive six-part article explaining diabetes with an illustrated section about insulin, glucagon and blood glucose. (Howstuffworks)