Type 1 vs. Type 2 Diabetes: What's the Difference?

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Woman checking blood sugar on finger

More than 32 million Americans have diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some have type 1 diabetes; others, type 2 diabetes. Although there are many similarities, it’s the significant differences between type 1 vs. type 2 diabetes causes that affect disease management and treatment.

Common Diabetes Symptoms 

Diabetes is characterized by the body’s inability to efficiently use glucose, or “blood sugar.” Higher-than-normal blood sugar levels can cause a variety of symptoms including:

  • Excess thirst
  • Excess hunger
  • Slow-healing cuts, wounds and bruises
  • Blurry vision
  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Frequent or recurring vaginal or oral yeast infections (thrush

These symptoms can show up with type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

Type 1 Diabetes 

Type 1 diabetes (insulin-dependent diabetes) occurs when the body stops making insulin, a hormone that is needed to move glucose from the bloodstream into the cells. Type 1 diabetes is sometimes called “juvenile-onset diabetes” because it usually occurs in children; however, it can develop in adulthood as well. Type 1 diabetes may be an autoimmune disease, but the exact cause is not known.

Symptoms typically appear rather suddenly. An individual who develops unusual thirst and hunger and needs to urinate frequently should be checked for diabetes. In some cases, a potty-trained child may begin wetting the bed again.

Insulin treatment is essential for the management of type 1 diabetes. A balanced diet and physical exercise can help individuals control their blood sugar levels, but these activities alone will not keep glucose levels in check because the body isn’t making insulin. Without insulin, it is impossible for glucose to move from the bloodstream and into cells, which use glucose to generate energy. Most people with type 1 diabetes give themselves insulin injections with small syringes or insulin pens. Some people use insulin pumps, which can automatically deliver insulin.

Approximately 8% of people with diabetes have type 1.

Type 2 Diabetes 

In type 2 (non-insulin-dependent diabetes), the body still produces insulin, but the cells are insulin-resistant, or not as responsive to the hormone as they need to be. Typically, the pancreas (the organ that secretes insulin) pumps out more insulin, in an attempt to get blood sugar into the cells; but, over time, the pancreas wears out. The pancreas may produce less and less insulin as the years go on. There are several risk factors for insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, but, as with type 1 diabetes, the exact cause of type 2 diabetes is not known.

The symptoms of type 2 diabetes usually appear gradually, which means they may be easy to overlook at first. If you have a family history of diabetes, be alert and consult a medical provider if you notice excessive thirst, hunger, urination or other symptoms of diabetes. Women who had gestational diabetes during a pregnancy should also carefully monitor their health and seek medical attention for possible diabetes symptoms. Research has found that about half of women who had gestational diabetes develop type 2 diabetes within 15 years.

Prompt diagnosis and treatment can bring blood sugar levels under control and prevent diabetes complications, including blindness, erectile dysfunction, and nerve damage. In the early stages, a person may be able to control type 2 diabetes with diet, exercise, and weight loss. If medication is needed, healthcare providers can prescribe oral medication to decrease insulin resistance and increase insulin secretion. (It may take time to figure out the best combination and dosage of medications for an individual.) Some people who have type 2 diabetes eventually require insulin injection.

Approximately 90% of people with diabetes have type 2.

Your healthcare provider can help you develop a plan to manage diabetes risk and treat diabetes, if necessary.

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  1. Diabetes. American Academy of Family Physicians. https://familydoctor.org/condition/diabetes/?adfree=true
  2. National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2020. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/data/statistics-report/index.html
  3. The Difference Between Type 1 and Type 2. Joslin Diabetes Center. https://www.joslin.org/patient-care/diabetes-education/diabetes-learning-center/difference-between-type-1-and-type-2
  4. Differences Between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes UK. https://www.diabetes.org.uk/diabetes-the-basics/differences-between-type-1-and-type-2-diabetes
  5. Type 1 Overview. American Diabetes Association. https://www.diabetes.org/diabetes/type-1/symptoms
  6. Learn the Genetics of Diabetes. American Diabetes Association. https://www.diabetes.org/diabetes/genetics-diabetes
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jun 24
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