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What’s the Difference between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes?

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Medically approved by Dr Earim Chaudry
Chief Medical Officer
iconLast updated 7th January 2022
In 30 seconds…

What’s the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes? Where type 1 diabetes accounts for about 8% of people with diabetes, type 2 affects around 90%. Type 1 usually develops in childhood or adolescence, while type 2 tends to come on later in life.

Both conditions are extremely serious, affecting your body’s ability to manage the hormone insulin. In type 1, your immune system attacks your pancreas, meaning that it cannot produce insulin in the first place. In type 2, however, the insulin you do make doesn’t work or your body becomes resistant to its effects. This means that, in both cases, your blood glucose levels become too high – as insulin helps that blood sugar to enter your cells.

While we don’t know for sure what causes type 1 diabetes, your weight and ethnicity can put you at greater risk of type 2. And while you can manage type 1 by taking insulin, a healthy diet, exercise, and medication can help get type 2 diabetes under control.

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a reasonably common condition that affects your body’s ability to control your blood sugar levels. It can be serious, and the sad truth is that, if you have it or develop it, you will probably be living with the condition for a long time to come.

The good news, though, is that these days it can be relatively easily managed.

But what is the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes? You’re not the first person to ask this question. While both conditions affect the way your body produces and uses a hormone known as insulin, they’re quite different. The biological cause is different and the methods of managing the illnesses are different too.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at the two conditions in a little more detail. Because if you or anyone else in your life is struggling with the condition, it’s best to know what you’re dealing with.

Insulin and Your Blood Sugar Levels

In general, diabetes – or diabetes mellitus, to use its full name – is a group of disorders that affect your metabolism, resulting in raised blood sugar levels. Specifically, it affects your body’s ability to use and produce insulin, a hormone that enables your cells to take glucose from your blood.

Normally, when you eat, your digestive system breaks down the carbohydrates in your diet into glucose, a type of sugar, which is then absorbed into your bloodstream. There, it is then transported around your body and delivered to your cells, which absorb it and use it as energy. If there’s too much glucose in your blood (such as after a meal), any excess is stored in your liver.

Insulin plays a crucial role in all of this. It allows your cells to absorb the sugar and use it. And it’s insulin again that tells your liver to store any excess.

Insulin is produced in the pancreas. However, if your pancreas is damaged, or if for some other reason it does not produce insulin, then your blood sugar levels become too high. And there are all sorts of possible complications of high blood sugar levels (or hyperglycemia, as it’s known). These include cardiovascular disease, nerve damage (neuropathy), and damage to your eyes, hearing, kidneys, and immune system.

The Difference between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes

So, we know that, normally, insulin enables your body to process the glucose that you get from your diet. But what happens in diabetic people?

Well, that brings us to the key difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes. While both types of diabetes affect your ability to use insulin, this happens for different reasons in the two conditions:

  • Type 1 diabetes. This is an autoimmune disease, in which your body attacks your pancreas, meaning that it is unable to produce enough insulin. Type 1 is responsible for about 8% of diabetes cases, according to Diabetes UK, but it is not yet known quite why it happens.
  • Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 happens because your body has developed insulin resistance – i.e., your insulin is not as effective as it should be. This still means that you have high blood glucose levels, but it’s down to a different cause.

Type 1 tends to develop in children and adolescents. Type 2, meanwhile, usually develops later in life, particularly in the over-40s (although more and more younger people are beginning to develop type 2). While we don’t know for sure why type 1 diabetes occurs, we know that you are at higher risk of type 2 diabetes if you don’t have a healthy lifestyle, for example. And it’s made more likely by several risk factors, including:

  • Your family history
  • Your ethnicity
  • Your lifestyle
  • Obesity, or having a high body weight.

Diabetes Symptoms?

Type 1 and type 2 share the same symptoms. However, a crucial difference to note is that their onset is quite different.

In those with type 1, symptoms appear very quickly, meaning that you are much more likely to notice them. In type 2, meanwhile, they develop gradually – making them easy to miss. As a result, many people don’t realise they have diabetes until they have experienced some of the long-term damage.

Being aware of what the symptoms are is the best way to tackle diabetes. For both type 1 and type 2, these include:

  • Frequent urination
  • Increased thirst and hunger
  • Weight loss without intending to (note: more common in type 1)
  • Tiredness
  • Slow healing of cuts and wounds

Managing Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes

Types 1 and 2 diabetes have a lot in common. However, when it comes to managing the different conditions, there are some key distinctions. While you need to do a lot of blood tests to monitor your condition (such as the HbA1c blood test), diabetes care plans will depend on which type you have.

For type 1 diabetes, you will need to take insulin injections to keep the amount of insulin in your body at the correct level. You may need to make some lifestyle changes too. These can include counting the carbohydrates in your diet so that you can monitor the amount of insulin you need.

The challenging thing about type 1, though, is that you will need to monitor your insulin for the rest of your life – because there is not yet a cure to problems with insulin production.

For adult-onset type 2, however, there are ways to bring your diabetes under control. Frequent blood tests will again be necessary. However, with medication and changes to your lifestyle, you can bring the condition into remission. Some measures that can help include:

  • Regular exercise
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Following a low-calorie diet
  • Medication including Metformin, which reduces the amount of glucose your liver releases into your blood
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Key Takeaways

What is the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes? They both affect the way that blood glucose is absorbed by your cells. However, while type 1 is an autoimmune disease, type 2 develops over time due to your body’s resistance to insulin.

The symptoms of the condition are the same, but treatments tend to differ. While type 1 generally requires insulin injections, type 2 can be treated with medications and a number of lifestyle changes.


The British Diabetic Association – Type 1 diabetes:


Nadia Lascar, MD, James Brown, PhD, Prof Helen Pattison, PhD, Prof Anthony H Barnett, MD, Prof Clifford J Bailey, PhD, Srikanth Bellary, MD (2018). Type 2 diabetes in adolescents and young adults –


While we've ensured that everything you read on the Health Centre is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

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