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This topic provides information about type 2 diabetes in children. If you are looking for information about type 1 diabetes, see the topic Type 1 Diabetes: Children Living With the Disease.
Type 2 diabetes is a disease that develops when the body's tissues cannot use insulin properly. Over time, the pancreas cannot make enough insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps the body's cells use glucose (sugar) for energy. It also helps the body store extra energy in muscle, fat, and liver cells.
Without insulin, the glucose cannot get into the cells to do its work. It stays in the blood instead. This can cause high blood glucose levels. A person has diabetes when the blood glucose stays too high too much of the time.
Over time, high blood glucose can cause problems with the eyes, heart, blood vessels, nerves, and kidneys. High blood glucose also makes a person more likely to get serious illnesses or infections.
In the past, doctors believed that type 2 diabetes was an adult disease and that type 1 diabetes was a children's disease. Now, more and more children are getting type 2 diabetes.
Finding out that your child has diabetes can be scary. But your child can live a long, healthy life by learning to manage the disease.
Doctors do not know exactly what causes diabetes. Experts believe the main risks for children getting type 2 diabetes are being overweight, not being physically active, and having a family history of the disease and insulin resistance. Insulin resistance refers to the inability of the body tissues to respond properly to insulin. If the body tissues do not respond properly to insulin, the blood glucose level rises.
Most children with type 2 diabetes do not have symptoms when the disease is first found. If there are symptoms, they usually are mild and may include:
A simple blood test is usually all that is needed to diagnose diabetes. Your child's doctor may do other blood tests if it is not clear whether your child has type 1 or type 2 diabetes.
A doctor may test your child for diabetes if they are overweight, gets little physical activity, or has other risk factors for the disease. A risk factor is anything that increases your chances of having a disease. Some children are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes when they have a blood or urine test for some other reason.
The key to treating diabetes is to keep your child's blood glucose levels within a target range. To do this:
You play a major role in helping your child take charge of their diabetes care. Let your child do as much of the care as possible. At the same time, give your child the support and guidance they need.
The longer a person has diabetes, the more likely they are to have problems, such as diseases of the eyes, heart, blood vessels, nerves, and kidneys. But if your child can control their blood glucose levels every day, it may help to delay the start of or prevent some of these problems later on.
Even when you are careful and do all the right things, your child can have problems with high or low blood glucose. It is important to know what signs to look for and what to do if this happens.
To learn more about treating low blood glucose, see the following information:
Helping your child stay at a healthy weight and get regular exercise can help prevent type 2 diabetes.
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The exact cause of type 2 diabetes is not known. But experts believe the disease develops in children the same way it does in adults. The body cannot correctly use the hormone insulin that is available. This is called insulin resistance. Over time, the pancreas does not produce enough of the hormone insulin.
Things that affect the body's resistance to insulin in childhood include:
Children often have no symptoms of type 2 diabetes before they are diagnosed, because their blood glucose level has been rising so slowly. As a result, a child may have diabetes for several months or years before being diagnosed.
When children do have symptoms, the most common include:
Other possible symptoms include:
Type 2 diabetes usually develops in adulthood, but the number of children being diagnosed with the disease is rising. Children with type 2 diabetes are usually diagnosed during the early teen years. During this time, their bodies are growing and developing rapidly, placing a demand on the pancreas to produce additional insulin.
Children with type 2 diabetes are usually overweight, which also contributes to insulin resistance. If the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin to overcome the resistance, diabetes can develop.
Diabetes experts believe the disease progresses as it does in adults. The main risk factors for complications from diabetes are the length of time a person has diabetes and the degree of blood glucose control. A child who develops type 2 diabetes may have an increased risk of complications, because they will have the disease for a long time. Some complications that children and teens may develop include:
If a child's blood glucose levels remain high for a long time, they may grow at an abnormal rate—faster than normal for a while, then slower than normal later. If blood glucose levels stay high during puberty, normal changes and the start of menstruation may be delayed.
The way to prevent complications is to always keep blood glucose levels in a target range. This requires that your child follow their treatment plan daily and monitor blood glucose levels often. Your child also will need ongoing diabetes education and regular checkups. Other medical conditions, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, need adequate medical care also, because they raise the risk for diabetes complications.
Children with type 2 diabetes have to modify their lifestyles. Your child will be more successful if your whole family is involved. These lifestyle changes benefit everyone by reducing the risk for diabetes and heart disease.
The major risk factors for type 2 diabetes in children include:footnote 1
Other things that increase risk include:footnote 1
Medical conditions that contribute to the risk of complications in adolescence and beyond include:
Teens who have diabetes and smoke have a higher risk of complications from diabetes than do those who do not smoke.
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if your child:
Less common in type 2 diabetes is diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), which has symptoms similar to those of hyperosmolar state. But DKA is still possible and very dangerous.
Call a doctor now if your child:
Check with your doctor if your child:
Watchful waiting is a wait-and-see approach. It's not a good choice if:
Many children have no symptoms before they are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
If a doctor suspects that your child may have type 2 diabetes, they will do a medical history, physical examination, and blood glucose testing. If the results of these tests meet the criteria for diagnosing diabetes established by Diabetes Canada, your child has diabetes.
If it is hard to tell whether your child has type 2 or type 1 diabetes, your doctor may do a C-peptide test or test for autoantibodies. (Autoantibodies are produced when the body's immune system does not work right. These tests can help diagnose type 1 diabetes.)
Another form of diabetes, maturity onset diabetes of the young (MODY), is an inherited disease caused by a change (mutation) in a gene. There are many types of MODY depending on the gene that is affected. Genetic testing can help you and your doctor decide how to treat MODY.
Because your child is at risk for diabetes complications (eye, heart, kidney, nerve, liver, and blood vessel problems), they need to see a doctor regularly for tests to monitor type 2 diabetes.
If your child is overweight and gets little or no exercise, they may be at risk for type 2 diabetes. Early detection and treatment for type 2 diabetes can prevent or delay problems from the disease.
Treatment of type 2 diabetes in children focuses on keeping blood glucose levels within a target range. Children may need higher blood glucose goals than adults, because their bodies are still developing. Also, they may not be able to recognize symptoms of low blood glucose. To reach their target blood glucose, your child needs to eat healthy meals of appropriate portion size and get daily exercise. Treatment also may include medicine.
A healthy diet with the right amount of calories will help your child achieve target blood glucose levels and maintain a healthy weight. The meal plan designed for your child will spread carbohydrate (starches and sugary foods) throughout the day. This helps prevent high blood glucose after meals as well as weight gain. A registered dietitian can design a meal plan that not only fits your child's needs but also is a healthy eating plan for your family. For more information, see the topic Healthy Eating for Children.
If your child is overweight, they may need to lose weight (or stay at the same weight and not gain more). This depends on their age, development, and other risk factors.
Physical activity is extremely important. It helps the body use insulin correctly and helps control weight. Your child does not have to start a rigorous exercise program, but being more active can help control blood glucose. For example, your child could play outside with friends, take brisk walks with family members, and take part in individual or team sports.
Experts recommend that teens and children (starting at age 5) do moderate to vigorous activity at least 1 hour every day.footnote 2, footnote 3 And 3 or more days a week, what they choose to do should:
It's okay for them to be active in smaller blocks of time that add up to 1 hour or more each day.
Limit your child's screen time. Have your child take breaks from computer, cell phone, and TV use and be active instead.
Your child may need medicines if eating healthy meals and getting regular physical activity have not lowered your child's blood glucose to their target level. These medicines increase insulin production or make the body better able to use insulin (decrease insulin resistance).
Your child's blood glucose level may need to be checked regularly, for example, before breakfast and 2 hours after meals.
If your child has high blood pressure or high cholesterol, those conditions need to be treated.
Some children have very high blood glucose levels when they are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. A child with a very high blood glucose level may develop the serious chemical imbalance diabetic ketoacidosis and need to be treated with insulin in a hospital. After blood glucose returns to a target level, the child usually no longer needs insulin. Their own body may start making enough insulin again.
Treating diabetes with medicine increases the risk for low blood glucose episodes. Your child's doctor will determine the target range for your child's blood glucose that will prevent damage from diabetes while causing as few low blood glucose episodes as possible.
The lifestyle changes needed to control diabetes can be especially hard for a child or teen. Your child will have a better chance of being successful if the whole family is involved. Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise may help other family members avoid diabetes.
Teens who have depression or an eating disorder may have difficulty keeping their blood glucose at a healthy level. Also, teens who smoke or use alcohol or other drugs have problems with blood glucose control. Support groups may help teens deal with diabetes management issues, which can improve the teens' perception of diabetes care and blood glucose control.
Healthy meals, physical activity, and weight control can help prevent diabetes or can prevent or delay complications if your child has diabetes. A registered dietitian can help you build a healthy meal plan for your child. Your doctor, exercise specialist, or certified diabetes educator also can help your child find ways to become more physically active.
Weight loss is appropriate if your child is overweight and they have reached adult height. In some severe cases, weight loss before your child reaches their full adult height may be needed. See the Interactive Tool: What Is Your Child's BMI?
Having a blood glucose level that is higher than normal but not yet at the level of diabetes (prediabetes) increases a child's risk for type 2 diabetes. If your child has prediabetes, eating a healthy diet and increasing physical exercise may make their blood glucose return to a normal range and possibly prevent type 2 diabetes. Your child will still need to see a doctor regularly to check for signs of the disease.
Your child needs to eat healthy meals with appropriate portions to support growth and prevent weight gain. The meal plan for your child will also spread carbohydrate throughout the day to prevent high blood glucose after meals. For information on healthy eating and weight management, see the topic Healthy Eating for Children.
Encourage your child (age 5 to 17) to do moderate to vigorous activity at least 1 hour every day. Limit the amount of time your child watches TV and uses the computer and cell phone. You can help your child or teen be active by looking for ways to make activity more fun and by being active along with your child.
The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) advises parents to limit recreational screen time to less than 1 hour a day for children 2 to 4 years old. Aim for 2 hours a day or less for children 5 to 17 years. And it's best for children younger than 2 to not watch TV, watch movies, or play games on a screen.
Work with your child's teachers and school to make a plan to handle your child's special needs, including testing blood glucose and eating snacks when needed.
Your child can take part in the same activities as other children. For safety:
You and your child will need to monitor their blood glucose frequently to know how well it is under control. Talk with your doctor about a target range for your child. Young children may need a higher blood glucose goal than adults because of growth needs and to prevent very low blood glucose (hypoglycemia). As your child grows older, the goal can be lowered so that it is closer to the recommended target range.
Your child may not need to take insulin if their blood glucose levels are staying within a target range with meal planning, exercise, and possibly other medicine. But at some point your child may need to take insulin because the pancreas may produce less and less insulin.
If your child takes insulin, you and your child need to know how to prepare and give a shot.
Other important issues include:
Childhood and the teen years are a difficult time to be diagnosed with diabetes. Normal developmental changes may interfere with your child following their treatment. Teens who have diabetes may rebel against treatment or participate in risky behaviour, such as using drugs or drinking alcohol.
You play a major role in helping your child become independent in their diabetes care. Allow your child to do as much of the care as possible. But give your child the support and guidance they need. Your child will be more successful if your family is physically active and has healthy eating habits.
Medicines that may be prescribed for children with type 2 diabetes are:footnote 1
This is the medicine of choice for children with type 2 diabetes. It is taken as a pill.
Your doctor may suggest insulin if metformin doesn't keep your child's blood glucose in the target range. Insulin can be taken as a shot (injection) or through an insulin pump .
Some children may need medicines to lower their blood pressure and cholesterol to reduce the risk for later complications.
When obesity is severe in older adolescents with type 2 diabetes, gastric bypass or other similar surgery may be considered as a last resort. For more information, see the topic Obesity.
Children who have type 2 diabetes should not try to lose weight by following a fad diet or by enrolling in a quick-fix weight loss program. Most doctors recommend that children who are overweight eat a healthy diet that provides appropriate calories to prevent further weight gain.
Weight loss is appropriate if your child is overweight and they have reached adult height. In some severe cases, weight loss before your child reaches their full adult height may be needed.
Along with medical treatment, you may wonder if complementary therapies, especially natural health products, may help your child. There isn't enough scientific evidence to say that any natural health product can prevent or manage type 2 diabetes.footnote 4
Talk with your doctor about any complementary health practice that you would like your child to try or your child is already using. Your doctor can help you manage your child's health better if they know about all of your child's health practices.
CitationsDiabetes Canada Clinical Practice Guidelines Expert Committee, et al. (2018). Type 2 diabetes in children and adolescents. Canadian Journal of Diabetes, 42(Suppl 1): S247–S254. DOI: 10.1016/j.jcjd.2017.10.037. Accessed October 15, 2018.Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (2011). Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines For Children. Available online: http://www.csep.ca/CMFiles/Guidelines/CSEP-InfoSheets-child-ENG.pdf.Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (2011). Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines For Youth. Available online: http://www.csep.ca/CMFiles/Guidelines/CSEP-InfoSheets-youth-ENG.pdf.National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (2008, updated 2014). Diabetes and dietary supplements: In depth. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/diabetes/supplements.
Adaptation Date: 9/21/2022
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services
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