When it's not just the flu: Kids with Type 1 diabetes often misdiagnosed due to the rapid onset of common symptoms
It is a common scenario: your child is nauseous, vomiting and very tired. It could be the flu, and that’s probably all it is. But it could also be Type 1 diabetes, a condition where the body does not produce a hormone, insulin, which it needs to get energy from food. Unfortunately, Type 1 diabetes is often not considered until your child is severely ill.
Such was the case for Samantha Willner. Willner, now 26, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was only 18 months old. Her doctors diagnosed her illness after multiple hospitalizations and several misdiagnoses of the flu.
“I was very thirsty, urinating all the time and losing weight,” Willner says. “My mom was told it was the flu, but I kept getting worse. She brought me back to the doctor and insisted they re-evaluate me. It took three different visits over a week and a half to discover that I had Type 1 diabetes. My blood sugar was almost 700. It was a miracle I survived as many children die in this situation.”
About one in every 600 children in the United States develops Type 1 diabetes. While the disease accounts for only about 10 percent of diabetes cases in the country, it’s one of the most common chronic diseases in children.
While Willner’s experience was traumatic, it’s not out of the ordinary. Thus, there are non-profit organizations, such as Beyond Type 1 who make it their mission to drive awareness around this life threatening condition.
Too often, children with Type 1 diabetes end up in the emergency room with soaring blood sugar levels. This serious condition is called diabetic ketoacidosis, or DKA. It occurs when the cells of a person with diabetes do not receive the glucose they need for energy, and start to burn fat and muscle instead. When this happens, leftover molecules called ketones are produced, and ketones begin to poison the body. This, in combination with extreme dehydration, can lead to diabetic coma, or even death, if not caught and treated in time. DKA can cause emotional burden on caregivers and family members, as well as a financial burden on the family and healthcare system. And it’s all too common: based on a recent survey performed by the T1D Exchange, 41 percent of people with diabetes were in DKA when they were diagnosed.
The good news, however, is that DKA is completely preventable. A simple urine test or finger prick are used to diagnose the condition. That’s why Willner is dedicated to raising awareness about Type 1 diabetes and DKA.
Symptoms of Type 1 diabetes that most often go undetected can come on quickly, and should be brought to a doctor’s attention as soon as possible. Early symptoms may include increased thirst or a very dry mouth; frequent urination; extreme hunger; and unintended weight loss. Furthermore, a child may be in DKA and should go immediately to the emergency room if he or she is experiencing:
* Nausea, vomiting or abdominal pain
* Difficulty breathing
* Fruity odor on breath
* Extreme fatigue
* Dry or flushed skin
* Difficulty paying attention, or confusion
“I have heard, too many times, about the death of a child who was sent home by medical professionals after being diagnosed with the stomach flu or a virus,” says Tom Karlya, author of the Diabetes Dad Blog. “I have held parents who were crying uncontrollably because their child's T1D diagnosis was missed, costing their life. Many more end up in hospitals in full blown DKA. It's not a matter of who is at fault, it is a matter of society joining together to make sure it does not happen again. In just about every case, the result could and should have been avoided.”
Like Karlya and many other passionate members of the diabetes community, Willner wants parents to trust their instincts, talk openly with their health care providers and maintain a positive outlook. “I’m so grateful that my mom pushed to find the right diagnosis — she saved my life. If you’re a parent with a child who has diabetes, please know there is no reason he or she can’t live a normal, wonderful, fulfilling life.”
Willner attributes her ability to manage her diabetes based on her experiences and her support system — she’s active in the diabetes community. She also notes her confidence has grown since starting on her tubeless Insulin pump, the Omnipod Insulin Management System, which has unique features that benefit her everyday life and help her control her diabetes.
“Managing diabetes is so different from when I was diagnosed. The technology that is available today allows us to have so much more freedom,” Willner says. “The Omnipod System has made me feel empowered, independent and better able to control my diabetes. It’s really possible to find a treatment option that works with your life.”
Ultimately, education and awareness can lead to proper diagnosis of diabetes and potentially save a life. Raising awareness of diabetes symptoms that can typically be mistaken for the flu could help prevent stories like Willner’s. For more information about the Omnipod System and how to better manage diabetes, visit www.myomnipod.com and talk with your doctor.