It’s normal for a flurry of questions to race through your head after you or a loved one receive a diabetes or prediabetes diagnosis. It can be a confusing, frightening time. Know that you’re not alone; over 37 million Americans have diabetes, and another 96 million have prediabetes. It’s possible to live a full and happy life with diabetes – people do it every day. But like most things, it can be overwhelming at the start, and you may not know where to begin.

Below, you’ll find answers to some of the most common questions about diabetes, so you can build your knowledge base and better manage your diabetes care.

1. What is diabetes?

Before we explain diabetes, let’s go over some anatomy. Your body breaks down the food you eat into glucose, a form of sugar, and then your bloodstream carries glucose throughout your body. Insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas, helps your body turn glucose into energy.

Diabetes is a chronic condition that results from changes to how insulin is made or used in the body. Certain factors – like illness, genetics or lifestyle – can change how much insulin is released or how your body uses that insulin. Without the right balance of insulin and insulin uptake, the level of glucose in your blood gets too high. Over time, high glucose levels can lead to health problems.

Everyone has some glucose in their blood, but people with diabetes have too much.

2. What causes diabetes?

Each type of diabetes is caused by a different set of factors, some that we still don’t understand.

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the immune system attacks the pancreas by mistake, destroying its ability to make insulin. As a result, people with type 1 diabetes need to take insulin every day. Doctors and researchers aren’t exactly sure what triggers this immune response.

Type 1 diabetes used to be called juvenile diabetes because it was diagnosed in children more often than in adults. However, type 1 diabetes can develop at any age.

Type 2 diabetes

Having type 2 diabetes means that your body doesn’t use insulin properly, resulting in higher levels of glucose in the bloodstream.

Type 2 diabetes is most common in adults, which is why type 2 diabetes used to be known as adult-onset diabetes. However, the disease is being diagnosed more frequently among children and teenagers.

Gestational diabetes

Women who don’t already have diabetes can develop it during pregnancy, which is known as gestational diabetes. Gestational diabetes can be caused by hormones from the placenta creating insulin resistance in pregnant women. It can also be caused when the body can’t meet the increased insulin needs of pregnancy.

All pregnant women are tested for gestational diabetes sometime between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy. Gestational diabetes can result in multiple complications for mother and baby, including:

  • Babies with a heavier birth weight, leading to difficult deliveries and the risk of C-section
  • Babies with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and obesity later in life
  • Mothers with an increased risk of gestational diabetes in later pregnancies
  • Mothers with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life

3. What are the symptoms of diabetes?

While type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes share many of the same symptoms, there are differences between them related to severity and timing.

The symptoms of type 1 diabetes develop quickly (over the course of just a few weeks or months) and are usually serious enough to be noticed right away. Common symptoms include:

  • Frequent urination (especially at night)
  • Extreme thirst and hunger
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Blurred vision
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Breath that smells like fruit

Many people with type 2 diabetes experience minor symptoms that can take years to develop. Some people never have any symptoms, which is why regular screenings for type 2 diabetes are so important. Symptoms of type 2 diabetes include:

  • Frequent urination (especially at night)
  • Excessive thirst and hunger
  • Blurred vision
  • Dry and itchy skin
  • Cuts and sores that are slow to heal
  • Frequent infections
  • Numbness and tingling in the feet or hands

Similar to type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes has few or no symptoms. The high blood sugar levels will cause symptoms that are very similar to those of a normal pregnancy, like fatigue and more frequent urination. Other symptoms include:

  • Increased thirst and hunger
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Blurred vision
  • Unexplained weight loss

4. Is diabetes genetic?

Yes, all types of diabetes can be inherited and passed from one family generation to the next. However, while you can inherit the genetic predisposition for diabetes, you may never get it unless something in your environment triggers it. For type 1 diabetes, this can be a virus or, in type 2, certain lifestyle habits.

5. What are the risk factors for diabetes?


The risk of type 2 diabetes increases among people aged 45 and older. Type 1 diabetes commonly develops in children and teens between ages 4-7 or between ages 10-14. Women who become pregnant after age 25 are at a higher risk of gestational diabetes.

Family history

A parent or sibling with type 1 or, more commonly, type 2 diabetes raises your chances of developing the condition as well. Also, the child of a mother who had gestational diabetes while pregnant is more likely to develop type 2 diabetes when they’re older. And as we mentioned earlier, women who experience gestational diabetes during one pregnancy are more likely to have it in subsequent pregnancies. And they also have a higher risk of being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes later in life.


Native Americans living in the U.S. have the highest rates of type 2 diabetes, followed by African American, Hispanic and Asian people. These differences are the result of environmental factors, in addition to genetics.

Lifestyle habits

Leading a sedentary lifestyle with a poor diet can contribute to type 2 and gestational diabetes. People who carry excess weight are at higher risk of developing type 2 and gestational diabetes.


A diagnosis of prediabetes means that your blood sugar levels are high, but not yet high enough to be considered type 2 diabetes. Prediabetes increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, but it can be reversed through healthy lifestyle changes.


Type 1 diabetes is more common among populations who live in cold-weather climates. Percentages increase the farther you get from the equator.

Managing diabetes is very important to your overall health and quality of life. Depending on the type of diabetes you have, there are multiple options to manage your condition. How you and your care team decide to treat your diabetes is unique to you, but it could involve some of the following treatments:

Glucose monitoring

Regularly checking your glucose level is an essential part of living well with diabetes. Your doctor can tell you when and how often you should be checking based on your diabetes type and treatment. For those with gestational diabetes, your doctor will monitor your blood sugar levels during labor and delivery as well.

Many people with diabetes use a glucose meter to check their blood sugar throughout the day. It only requires a drop of blood, which most people take from their fingertip with a prick from a small needle.

You may also decide to use a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), which is a small, wearable device that allows you to see where your glucose level is and if it’s changing through either a connecting smartphone app or the device itself. It collects data every five minutes and formulates it into patterns and history. It also provides you the option to set alerts and alarms.


Insulin is used to regulate blood sugar levels. People with type 1 diabetes have to take insulin, whereas people with type 2 diabetes or gestational diabetes can sometimes manage their blood sugar levels through other methods, like lifestyle changes. The goal of any intervention, whether through lifestyle or medication, is to maintain near-normal glucose values.

The two main types of insulin are background (basal) and mealtime (bolus) insulin. Background insulin helps provide your body with the insulin it needs overnight and between meals and snacks. Mealtime insulin helps meet your insulin needs at meals. Each type has a different purpose. Your clinician will talk with you about which insulin and insulin plan are right for you.

Insulin is injected into the fatty tissue just under the skin with a needle. There is a lot of new technology available that can deliver insulin, including smart insulin pens, wearable insulin patches and insulin pumps, among other automated insulin delivery devices.

Oral medication and non-insulin injectable medication

Treatment with oral medication and non-insulin injectable medication is an option for people with type 2 diabetes, but not for those with type 1. Medication can help people with type 2 diabetes manage their blood sugar when used in combination with regular exercise and a healthy diet. Often, those with type 2 diabetes may still have to take insulin, but they’ll take less than they would if they weren’t on medication.


Physical activity is a natural way to control your blood sugar level because it makes your body more responsive to insulin. According to the CDC, just 20-25 minutes of exercise each day is enough to feel the benefits.

Healthy eating

A healthy meal plan for diabetes is not just about what you eat, but also when and how much. Three meals a day eaten at regular intervals, sometimes with healthy snacks in between, will help your blood sugar level stay stable. A dietitian can help you figure out a diet that works for your lifestyle.

7. What other health problems are caused by diabetes?

The presence of too much sugar in the blood can cause problems in every part of the body. You can’t always control or stop a spike in blood sugar, but the most important thing is to bring your blood sugar level back down to a safe range afterwards. Without careful management of your blood sugar levels, you may have consistently high blood sugar. Eventually, this can lead to:

8. Is a normal life possible with diabetes?

Yes! While your life with diabetes may look a little different, it doesn’t have to be any less full or happy. With the right support and proper planning, you can still go out with friends, play sports, travel and do all the things you want to do.

There are just more things you have to consider, and that can be frustrating at times. Sometimes it helps to talk with other people who have diabetes, as they are going through many of the same things. Consider joining a diabetes support group if you need an outlet.

If your loved one has diabetes, learn how you can best support them with these tips on what not to say.

9. Can diabetes be reversed?

Type 1 diabetes can’t be reversed, but type 2 diabetes can be put into remission through treatment that involves a healthy diet and regular exercise. Remission means that someone with type 2 diabetes hasn’t needed to use medication or insulin to stabilize their blood sugar level in at least one year.

Gestational diabetes typically goes away after the baby is born, but women will continue to be at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes from then on. Only prediabetes can be reversed completely.

10. What current research is happening around diabetes?

Researchers at our world-renowned International Diabetes Center are actively engaged in ongoing studies around type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes. Our main priority is improving the quality of life for people with diabetes. Therefore, we focus on improving diabetes management and preventing complications related to diabetes. This includes making technology simpler and more accessible, setting standards for diabetes care, and providing resources and in-depth education to patients and clinicians alike.

To get involved in one of our current studies, visit our diabetes studies page.

Have more questions? We have answers.

Questions are an essential part of your care, and you should never feel shy or embarrassed about asking them. Some questions are best answered by your doctor and diabetes care team. If you’re unsure what to ask at your next appointment, here are some questions you can start with:

  • What should my blood sugar levels be? How often should I test and when?
  • What should I do when my blood sugar level is too high? What about when it’s too low?
  • What’s a good exercise program for me?
  • How often should I check my feet? What should I look for?
  • How do I know when to call my doctor or nurse?

Getting diabetes education

We offer diabetes education visits at our clinics around the Twin Cities Metro Area and western Wisconsin. At one of these visits, you’ll meet with a diabetes care and education specialist to learn more about diabetes and how to manage it. The specialist will partner with you and your care team to develop a plan that fits your needs. Education visits can be 1-on-1 or in a group setting.

If you need answers fast, our CareLine is available 24/7, 365 days a year. Call 612-339-3663 or 800-551-0859 to speak to a qualified registered nurse at no cost to you. Or schedule an appointment with one of our diabetes specialists.