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What is Diabetes?

Diabetes occurs when blood sugar (glucose) levels are too high. It is a common condition affecting about 5 in every 100 people. There are more than 250,000 people with diabetes in NZ.

Glucose enters our body from the the food we eat and is used to produce energy. The amount of glucose in the blood stream is regulated by the hormone insulin. The pancreas is responsible for insulin production. Insulin also helps to transport glucose into our cells where it is used as fuel.

Diabetes results when not enough insulin is created (Type 1) or the cells are not responsive enough to the insulin (Type 2), so the glucose remains in the bloodstream and rises an unhealthy level.

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 is most commonly diagnosed in children and young adults, but one in 5 people with type 1 are diagnosed over the age of 40. With type 1 diabetes the pancreas does not produce enough insulin and therefore insulin needs to be manually taken by injection.

The onset of type 1 diabetes is offset very rapid, and you may feel quite unwell, experience rapid or irregular breathing, a flushed face, acidy or fruity smelly breath, nausea and vomiting. Urgent medical treatment should be sought.

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 is most commonly found in adults (over 40) and results from ‘insulin resistance’. Lifestyle factors, such as inactivity and being overweight can lead to this type of diabetes. A healthy diet and exercise plan may be enough to control blood glucose levels, otherwise injections or tablets may be required to improve the body’s responsiveness to insulin

Signs and Symptoms

This will vary from person to person, but most newly diagnosed people and most people with poorly controlled diabetes will experience:

  • Passing large amounts of urine because the kidneys try to remove the excess glucose from the blood and into the urine.
  • Thirst occurs as glucose and fluid are removed from the body, resulting in dehydration.
  • Weight loss occurs if insulin deficiency is severe. The body is unable to burn glucose so it breaks down its own fat and muscle to use as fuel instead.
  • Other symptoms can include: tiredness, infections that don’t heal and blurry vision.
  • Note that some people do not experience any specific symptoms.


Testing for Type 2 Diabetes

We recommend that people with one of more of the following risk factors get tested on a regular basis (once every one or two years – talk with your doctor about frequency).

Risk factors include:

  • Someone with diabetes in your immediate family
  • Of Maori, Pacific Island or Asian descent
  • Are overweight for your height
  • If you had gestational diabetes when you were pregnant
  • If you have had a heart attack


Most people with type 2 diabetes have the condition for years before being diagnosed. The sooner that it is diagnosed the sooner the better so that you can get your blood glucose levels under control.