Research Article

Type I (insulin dependent) diabetes: a disease of slow clinical onset?

Br Med J (Clin Res Ed) 1987; 294 doi: (Published 07 February 1987) Cite this as: Br Med J (Clin Res Ed) 1987;294:342
  1. A C Tarn,
  2. C P Smith,
  3. K M Spencer,
  4. G F Bottazzo,
  5. E A Gale


    Type I (insulin dependent) diabetes is usually believed to present acutely and it is assumed that metabolic decompensation is sudden. In a prospective family study, however, 10 of 13 subjects developing the disease showed progressive or intermittent development of hyperglycaemia over many months and the others had non-specific symptoms over a long period. All were first degree relatives of a child with type I diabetes; 10 were siblings (aged 5-24) and three were parents (aged 45-58). All possessed HLA-DR4 or DR3, or both, and all but two had been positive for islet cell antibodies for six to 86 months before diagnosis. Ten had non-specific symptoms for two to 14 months before the onset of thirst and polyuria; one remained asymptomatic even when insulin became necessary. Six subjects had an oral glucose tolerance test before clinical onset, of whom five were diabetic by World Health Organisation criteria four, four, six, seven, and 21 months before insulin was needed. Nine showed random blood glucose concentrations above the 97.5th centile (6.3 mmol/l) six to 34 months (median 12) before diagnosis. Two others had a glucose tolerance test result compatible with diabetes but had not reached the stage of needing insulin. Hyperglycaemia is often of insidious onset in type I diabetes, even in children and young adults. Diagnosis will inevitably be late if considered only when acute symptoms of thirst and polyuria develop.