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Diabetes is a chronic condition that occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces.

There are two basic forms of diabetes:

  • Type 1: people with this type of diabetes produce very little or no insulin.
  • Type 2: people with this type of diabetes cannot use insulin effectively.

Type 2 diabetes is far more common than type 1. In the UK, around 90% of all adults with diabetes have type 2.

A third type of diabetes, gestational diabetes mellitus, develops during some cases of pregnancy.

Who gets it and how serious is it?

Type 1

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition where the body's immune system attacks the cells in the pancreas making it unable to produce insulin.

Type 1 diabetes is often inherited (runs in families), so the autoimmune reaction may be genetic.

It's not known exactly what triggers the immune system to attack the pancreas, but some researchers have suggested it may be a viral infection.

Type 1 diabetes can develop at any age but usually appears before the age of 40, and especially in childhood.

People with type 1 diabetes, especially children and younger people, usually experience the symptoms quite suddenly, over a few days or weeks, although it can develop more slowly in adults.

Information about type 1 diabetes is available from the NHS Direct Wales website.

Type 2

About 90% of people with diabetes have type 2. It is more common in people who are very overweight and for this reason the number of children with type 2 diabetes is increasing.

Three of the main risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes are:

  • Age – being over the age of 40 (or over 25 for people of south Asian, Chinese, African-Caribbean or African origin, even if born in the UK)
  • Genetics – having a close relative with the condition, such as a parent, brother or sister
  • Weight – being overweight or obese

Information about type 2 diabetes is available from the NHS Direct Wales website.

The signs and symptoms of type 2 diabetes can often be mild and develop gradually over a number of years.


The main symptoms, which are common to both type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes, are:

  • urinating more often than usual, particularly at night
  • feeling very thirsty
  • feeling very tired
  • unexplained weight loss
  • itching around the penis or vagina, or frequent episodes of thrush
  • cuts or wounds that heal slowly
  • blurred vision – caused by the lens of the eye becoming dry

More about the symptoms of diabetes are available from the NHS Direct Wales website at 

You must see your GP if you think you may have diabetes.

If diabetes is not treated it can lead to many different health problems. This is because large amounts of glucose can damage the blood vessels, nerves and organs.

Even a mildly raised glucose level that does not cause any symptoms in the short-term can affect the blood vessels, nerves and organs in the long-term. This may lead to complications often years after the diabetes was first diagnosed.

Complications include heart disease and stroke, retinopathy (damage to the retina at the back of the eye), kidney disease, foot problems and impotence in men.

In general, the risk of developing complications is greatly reduced if the blood glucose level is well controlled and if other risk factors, particularly high blood pressure and high cholesterol are controlled.

Pregnant women with diabetes are at increased risk of miscarriage and stillbirth.


Diabetes cannot be cured, but it can be controlled. Type 1 diabetes is controlled by taking insulin regularly, exercising regularly, watching what you eat, and checking your blood glucose level throughout the day.

The best way to control type 2 diabetes is to keep blood glucose levels as close to normal as possible by careful diet and exercising regularly. A doctor should measure average blood glucose level every couple of months.

Diabetes tablets, such as metformin, sulphonylureas and meglitinides, are also taken to control diabetes. Insulin is another option to the tablets, but may increase the chance of getting hypoglycaemia more often and cause weight gain.

How common is it?

According to Diabetes UK there are an estimated 4.5 million people with diabetes in the UK. This includes 1 million people with Type 2 diabetes who don’t know they have it because they haven’t been diagnosed.

Results from the 2015 Welsh Health Survey indicated that 7% of adults were being treated for diabetes.


You may be at risk of developing type 2 diabetes if it runs in your family or if you are overweight and don’t get a lot of exercise. The best thing you can do to try and prevent diabetes is to maintain a healthy weight by eating a healthy diet and taking regular exercise.

A healthy diet is one that is low in saturated fat, salt and sugary snacks and drinks. Try to eat regular meals throughout the day to keep your blood-sugar level constant and eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day.

Stop smoking and reduce your alcohol intake. If you have diabetes, you can still eat foods such as chocolate and sweets as long as you keep your overall diet healthy.

Ideally you should take thirty minutes of exercise at least three times a week. However, regular exercise does not have to be a chore; you can make sure you keep active by walking instead of taking the bus and using the stairs instead of the lift