Type 1 Diabetes: Flu-Like Symptoms In Kids May Not Be The Flu

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse/Facebook

Trigger warning: child loss

Your son comes home from school and is lethargic. A few hours later, he starts vomiting. You assume he has the stomach bug—which is rampant this time of year. You give him some ginger ale and put on a favorite movie—praying the virus runs its course quickly and doesn’t spread to your other kids.

Your child is urinating often and guzzling water. The cooler temps have brought on some seriously dry air, you reason. Then your child, who has been potty trained for years, starts having nighttime accidents. Is this a phase? Do you need to take him to the pediatrician? Maybe it’s a UTI?

RELATED: What To Eat When You Have The Stomach Flu (And Feel Like Ralphing 24/7)

Your child comes out of her room, ready for school. You notice that her jeans—the same ones she’s been wearing for months—appear baggy on her. She’s been rubbing her eyes constantly, complaining that her vision is blurry. You wonder if you should schedule her yearly eye exam a few months early. Maybe she needs glasses?

These stories sound routine. After all, this time of year brings about a lot of sick days and funky symptoms. Kids are cooped up in classrooms and daycare centers, freely coughing and sneezing into the air and onto one another. Of course, we all want parents to keep their sick kids at home—but the reality is, this doesn’t always happen.

Like me, you might step it up this time of year. I remind my kids to wash their hands often—with warm water and plenty of soap. We keep vitamin C, elderberry syrup, moisturizing facial tissues, chicken noodle soup, and sanitizing gel on hand. But of course, we always wind up with at least one bout of illness, if not several. Thank you, winter.

But what if your child’s symptoms—which mimic common viruses—are actually signs of something much more serious? And not just serious, but a medical emergency?

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the body eventually ceases to make its own insulin. When insulin dwindles, a person’s blood sugar begins to climb. This can come on quickly and dangerously in children.

Symptoms can include lethargy, weight loss, blurry vision, breathlessness, extreme thirst and hunger, tingling in the hands and feet, fatigue, and vomiting. Yes—some of these symptoms can easily be dismissed or diagnosed as viral illnesses. Which is why when your child is ill, it’s always a good idea to ask the doctor to check your child’s blood sugar. All this takes is one—yes, one—drop of blood on a glucose meter.

Josh Terry knows exactly how serious the onset of type 1 diabetes can be. In January of 2015, his five-year-old daughter Kycie complained of a headache. The next day, she had a stomachache and was making frequent trips to the bathroom. On Wednesday, Kycie’s mom took her to the doctor where Kycie was diagnosed with strep throat—based on the white patches on her throat–and given a prescription for antibiotics.

Kycie wasn’t getting better with the antibiotics and appeared to have lost weight. Then she started refusing to eat and was dry heaving. She went back to her doctor who was perplexed as to why Kycie was still sick. Her parents took her to the ER, and they did blood work. The result? Her blood sugar was 1,000—that’s ten times the norm.

Kycie was in severe diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA)—where the body turns toxic and begins shutting down– and was life-flighted to a children’s hospital in Salt Lake City. Fifteen minutes before Kycie arrived at the hospital, she suffered from herniation of the brain, into her brain stem, as a result of diabetic ketoacidosis.

The white patches on Kycie’s throat weren’t caused by strep—as her doctor thought. It was thrush from high blood sugars.

Kycie was in the hospital from her diagnosis until May—as her family and medical team worked to cope with Kycie’s extensive brain damage. She was released to go home, requiring around-the-clock care. But just five weeks later, Kycie got a cold which turned into pneumonia. She was hospitalized for another week before returning home for a second time.

Three days later, Kycie passed away in her father’s arms, her mom beside them.

Josh, his wife, and their five sons run Kisses for Kycie, an organization that honors Kycie by bringing awareness to the symptoms of type 1 diabetes. Josh told Scary Mommy that though he knows the symptoms, many others do not. He said, “I do not want what happened to us to happen to another family.”

Though type 1 diabetes is sometimes referred to as juvenile diabetes, adults can also develop type 1. I’m a case-in-point. At age 23, I got a stomach virus over Thanksgiving break. For 18 months, I had chronic sinus infections, extreme weight loss, increasingly blurry vision, constant hunger and thirst, weakness, and exhaustion. I sought help from five different medical professionals—including my general doctor and a registered dietitian. Not one of them tested my blood sugar. I was misdiagnosed with anorexia and told I was a hypochondriac.

My husband took me to the ER one afternoon when he couldn’t reach me by phone. He found me on the couch, barely conscious, and rushed me to the hospital. My blood sugar was 700, and I was in DKA, knocking on death’s door. I’m very fortunate to be alive today.

I encourage parents not to be paranoid–but certainly, to be aware. If your child is ill, ask your doctor to check their blood sugar, and don’t take no as an answer. Doing so could save your child’s life.

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