Medibank Health Directory

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a chronic condition that comes in a number of forms. By far the most common is type 2 diabetes; followed by type 1 diabetes and gestational diabetes.

People with diabetes cannot convert the glucose from foods like pasta, bread, fruit and milk into energy. Instead, this glucose stays in their bloodstream and causes a range of symptoms like lethargy and dizziness. If left untreated, it can lead to serious complications including heart attack, stroke, kidney failure and blindness.

While diabetes is not curable at this stage, it can be managed effectively with some simple changes to diet and exercise; and in some cases insulin injections.

According to Diabetes Australia, diabetes is the fastest growing chronic condition in Australia, with 280 Australians developing the condition every day. 

Given its prevalence, it is important to understand the different types of diabetes – their symptoms, causes, and ways to manage the condition. This last point is especially important because, if left untreated, diabetes can lead to serious complications.

Symptoms of diabetes

First, let’s look at the symptoms of diabetes.

While some types of diabetes can go undiagnosed for a long time, the following symptoms may present themselves:

  • excessive thirst
  • passing more urine
  • tiredness
  • persistent hunger
  • having cuts that heal slowly
  • itching and skin infections
  • blurred vision
  • unexplained weight loss 
  • mood swings
  • headaches 
  • feeling dizzy
  • leg cramps.

If you experience any of these symptoms, you should go to the doctor. They will be able to perform a simple test to diagnose whether you have diabetes, and will identify which type of diabetes you may have.

Causes and management of diabetes

The most common forms of diabetes are outlined below. See the Diabetes Australia website for explanations of the  other types of diabetes, including pre-diabetes or impaired glucose metabolism. 

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune disease. This means that the body’s immune system attacks itself. It’s a disease you can’t prevent.

People with type 1 diabetes are unable to produce insulin from their pancreas, the hormone used by the body to turn glucose into energy. Instead, the body burns its own fat to get the energy it needs – which can cause a life-threatening build up of chemicals in the blood. 

Daily insulin injections (up to six per day) are needed to try and keep blood glucose levels as close to normal as possible. To achieve this, people with the condition must test their blood glucose levels throughout the day, and regularly inject insulin. There may be a point when an insulin pump is used.

As well as daily monitoring of blood glucose and insulin injections, people with type 1 diabetes can manage their condition by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Diabetes Australia has some useful tips

Type 1 diabetes most commonly occurs in people under 30, and the symptoms can appear suddenly. A doctor can perform a simple test to see if you have the condition. 

Type 2 diabetes

Affecting 85-90% of all people with diabetes, type 2 diabetes is by far the most common form of the disease. It mainly affects older adults; sadly, Diabetes Australia estimates that up to 60% of cases could be prevented. 

In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas makes some insulin – but not enough. It is more common in people with a family history of the disease; as well as in people who are overweight or obese, do not exercise enough, and have an unhealthy diet. 

When people first get type 2 diabetes, it’s often possible to manage it with healthy eating and regular exercise. Eventually, many type 2 diabetics will need tablets and some may also need insulin. Monitoring your diabetes, regularly seeing your doctor, healthy lifestyle and taking tablets or insulin as soon as they are required can result in fewer complications in the long-term. 

Find out about Medibank's Type 2 Diabetes Program.

Gestational diabetes

Between 12% and 14% of women develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy, with the symptoms first appearing in the 24th to 28th weeks. In most cases, it disappears as soon as the baby is born. Fortunately, most women with the condition will have an otherwise normal pregnancy and a healthy baby. 

However, if left untreated, gestational diabetes can cause serious complications for the mother and the baby. A treatment plan should be devised in collaboration with doctors and specialists, and will generally involve monitoring blood glucose levels at home, eating well and exercising regularly. Some women will also need insulin. 

Gestational diabetes is more common in women over 40, and those with a family history of type 2 diabetes. It is also more likely if you are overweight, or have an Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, Vietnamese, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Polynesian or Melanesian background. 

Further information and sources



This article is of a general nature only. You should always seek medical advice if you think you may have the symptoms of diabetes. For more information, see  Diabetes Australia.