The difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes

Why are there different types of diabetes? Find out what's behind the names and types

July, 2017

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Insulin is key to both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes

Cells in your body need glucose (a form of sugar) as fuel, but your cells can’t use glucose without insulin. Your cells need insulin to allow glucose in to where it can be used as fuel. When there isn’t enough insulin or it isn’t able to work properly, the glucose stays in the blood. In diabetes, either:

  • Your pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin (in both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes)
  • The cells in your body don’t react to the insulin that’s there (in Type 2 diabetes)

Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes have different causes but similar results

The causes of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are entirely different. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition, meaning that your immune system attacks the body’s own cells. In Type 1 diabetes, the beta cells in the pancreas that create insulin are attacked to the point where they are no longer able to generate insulin at all. This means that people with Type 1 diabetes have to inject insulin regularly.

Type 2 diabetes develops more slowly. In some people, the body becomes resistant to insulin over time, and the cells don’t respond as well to it. This is known as insulin resistance.

If you have insulin resistance, the cells in your body are less and less able to use the insulin that’s there. To make up for this, your pancreas creates more insulin. Over time, the beta cells in the pancreas are worn down from this increased production, and eventually they become less and less able to make insulin. You then don’t have enough insulin to deal with the glucose in your blood.

Diabetes differences

There are some similarities in the two types of diabetes, but also some important differences. These differences affect how a person with diabetes will be treated and what medication they need to take.

Other types of diabetes

You may sometimes hear about other terms to do with diabetes. Here’s a quick run-down of some of the main ones:

Gestational diabetes

This affects pregnant women. It usually disappears once the baby is born, but having diabetes while you’re pregnant can increase your risk of getting Type 2 diabetes in later life.

Type 1.5 diabetes

This is an unofficial term that some people use to describe “latent autoimmune diabetes in adults”. It is a form of Type 1 diabetes that has some features of Type 2 diabetes.

Secondary diabetes

This happens when you have another long-term medical condition that then contributes to you getting diabetes as well. How secondary diabetes is managed will depend a lot on which illness caused it in the first place.