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In the UK, around 4 million people have been diagnosed with diabetes. The number of people with diabetes is expected to keep rising, with an estimated 5.3 million likely to be diagnosed with diabetes by 2025.

Diabetes is a condition that results in high blood sugar levels. There are different causes, symptoms, and risks for the different types of diabetes. To help you better understand, we cover the differences between both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

What is diabetes?

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition that results in our bodies experiencing high blood sugar levels. There are 2 types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. While both types affect our blood sugar levels, the causes and how to manage the conditions are different.

Diabetes is a lifelong condition, meaning there is no cure. To stay healthy, those with diabetes will need to manage the condition in order to control their blood sugar levels. Otherwise, they can become exposed to much more serious health conditions, such as heart disease.

With diabetes, the body is unable to break down glucose from the blood and transfer it as energy into cells. This is a result of insufficient insulin levels, or the insulin that is produced not working correctly.

Someone with diabetes will need to eat a healthy diet, get plenty of regular exercise, and regularly test their blood to check glucose levels. Someone with type 1 diabetes will need to inject insulin for the rest of their life, while type 2 diabetes may require medication.

Young female injecting insulin

Someone with diabetes is also at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes that damages the retina. If left untreated, it can lead to blindness. Controlling blood sugar levels and taking regular eye screenings can help.

Now that we’ve covered what diabetes is, let’s take a look at the different types:

The difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes

Diabetes is a condition that causes blood sugar levels to become too high. The main difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes is that type 1 diabetes is a genetic condition, while type 2 often results from poor lifestyle and diet.

While there are similarities between both types of diabetes, whom it affects and how it affects the body differs. The major difference between the 2 types of diabetes is how high blood sugar levels occur. Type 1 is typically categorised as an autoimmune condition while type 2 results from insufficient insulin levels (sometimes known as insulin resistance).

It is important to know the difference between the 2 types of diabetes to help you better identify and manage the condition. Better management can reduce the risk of damage to the heart, kidneys, feet, and eyes.

High levels of HbA1c can also contribute to diabetic complications, such as feet and eye problems. HbA1c is made in the body when glucose sticks to red blood cells. High levels of HbA1c is an indicators of high blood sugar levels. You can test your HbA1c levels at home with the A1cNow Self Check.

Let’s explore the differences between type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is less common than type 2, with only around 10% of diabetics suffering from type 1. However, symptoms for type 1 diabetes can appear quickly, over the course of a few days or weeks. Type 1 is more likely to develop at a younger age, although it can occur at any age.


Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition that causes the body to attack itself. Our pancreas helps create insulin used in managing glucose levels. Type 1 diabetes affects our bodies by attacking the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.

The exact cause of type 1 diabetes is still not known. However, lifestyle choices, such as exercise and diet, do not impact type 1 diabetes. It is believed that genetics and certain viruses, such as enteroviruses, mumps virus, and rotaviruses, may cause type 1 diabetes.


There are 4 major symptoms of type 1 diabetes. While some of the symptoms can be the same for both types of diabetes, the 4 symptoms (or 4 Ts) are most common for type 1 diabetes. If you notice any of these symptoms, you should see your GP straight away to get tested.

These symptoms are similar for both adults and children. The 4 Ts of type 1 diabetes are:

  • Toilet – increased need to empty your bladder, particularly at night
  • Thirst – constantly feeling thirsty or unable to quench your thirst
  • Tired – feelings of tiredness, fatigue, and lack of energy
  • Thin – losing weight or looking unusually thin, even if you are not trying to lose weight

How type 1 diabetes affects our body

With type 1 diabetes, the pancreas (located in the stomach) progressively reduces the amount of insulin (used to control our blood sugar levels) it produces until it stops producing insulin altogether. As a result, blood sugar levels will rise to harmful levels.

With type 1 diabetes, our immune system affects our insulin production. Our immune system helps protects us against harmful bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other nasty germs. With type 1 diabetes, our immune system mistakes the cells in our pancreas as harmful.

To protect our body, our immune system mistakenly kills the cells in the pancreas that help us produce insulin. Without insulin, our bodies will start to break down fat and muscle leading to weight loss. It also means glucose cannot be moved from our blood and into cells for energy.

Someone with type 1 diabetes can suffer from diabetic ketoacidosis. If the bloodstream becomes too acidic from the breaking down of fat and muscle, our body produces dangerous levels of ketones. High ketone results in our bodies becoming severely dehydrated.

Type 1 diabetes can be a life-threatening illness if left untreated. While there is no cure for type 1 diabetes, regular insulin injections can help to maintain a healthy glucose level. The amount of insulin you inject is dependent on the food you eat, blood glucose levels and the amount of exercise.

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes

It is estimated that 90% of those with diabetes in the UK have type 2 diabetes. Despite the prevalence of type 2 diabetes, the symptoms can be very difficult to spot, often developing over a long period.

While type 1 diabetes is not related to lifestyle or diet, type 2 diabetes often is. There are more ways for you to manage type 2 diabetes as opposed to type 1, such as maintaining a healthy diet and sufficient regular exercise.

There is no cure for type 2 diabetes. However, it is possible to go into diabetes remission.

Health Conditions

There are 2 causes of type 2 diabetes. The first is when cells become resistant to insulin. When this happens, the cells do not take enough sugar (leading to a lack of energy). If cells are unable to get sufficient energy this way, it takes from other protein parts of a cell.

The waste product resulting from burning protein can lead to liver and kidney damage. Eventually, the body struggles to survive the loss of necessary cells. Research has found someone suffering from type 2 diabetes has a higher risk of early mortality.

The second is where the pancreas being unable to produce sufficient insulin, or insulin resistance. Without sufficient insulin, blood sugar levels increase. In the event that cells do not respond well to insulin, the body produces more. It is not known why either cause happens.


Type 2 diabetes can produce a range of different symptoms. However, these symptoms can develop very slowly (sometimes taking years to develop). Symptoms you may experience with type 2 diabetes include:

  • Being thirsty a lot more or unable to quench thirst
  • Increased need to empty your bladder
  • Feeling hungry more
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Sores or cuts that take a long time to heal
  • Blurred vision
  • Increased number of infections
  • A numb or tingling feeling in the hands and feet
  • Darkened areas of skin, including the neck and armpits (a tell-tale sign of insulin resistance).

If you experience any of these symptoms, you should visit your GP straight away to get tested.

Risk factors

Several risk factors can increase your likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes. As it can take symptoms a long time to appear, understanding the risk factors is important for early diagnoses.

Risk factors include:

  • Age – type 2 diabetes is much more likely to develop in later years.
  • Ethnicity – certain ethnicities, such as African or South Asian are more likely to develop diabetes at a younger age.
  • Obesity or overweight.
  • Insufficient exercise or inactivity.
  • Low levels of HDL cholesterol (or good cholesterol).
  • A large waist size.
  • Family history – such as a sibling or parent with diabetes.
  • Medical history of certain conditions – such as high blood pressure, heart disease or gestational diabetes.

Unlike type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes can be prevented. Lifestyle interventions can work well in helping prevent type 2 diabetes by up to 50%. Life interventions such as a balanced diet, regular physical exercise and maintaining a healthy weight all help.

Selection of fruit and veg next to exercise equipment

Living with diabetes can be overwhelming. However, it is extremely important to be aware of the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Understanding the differences, alongside the symptoms, can help you to get diagnosed quicker and continue to live a healthy life while keeping control of your diabetes.

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