Virus Exposure Linked to Type 1 Diabetes Risk

September 30,2021 |
Woman laying on a couch looking uncomfortable.

Getting sick is never fun, especially in the middle of a pandemic. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to completely avoid all viruses and bacteria throughout your life. While we can take safety precautions like washing our hands, limiting how often we touch our face, and wearing masks when we’re around others, viral exposure still occurs. Once we’re exposed to a virus or bacteria, our body’s immune system starts working to eradicate the foreign invader. Getting better is a sign that the viral load is decreasing, and our bodies are winning the fight. However, not all viruses are the same. In some instances, viral exposure can create complications and chronic changes within our cells. To better understand this relationship, here’s how viral exposure is linked to type 1 diabetes.

Understanding Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder that occurs when the body cannot produce enough insulin, which is a hormone that helps to control blood sugar levels. Type 1 diabetes is not associated with weight, age, or your lifestyle—the direct cause is still unknown. Genetics may increase your risk of developing type 1 diabetes and many researchers are now finding that viral exposure is also associated with its onset.

The relationship between type 1 diabetes and viral exposure is not a new development. There has been ongoing research regarding this concept, but more studies are needed to fully understand the scope of the correlation. However, it is worth noting and should be examined, especially in the case of child-onset type 1 diabetes.

While most people with diabetes have type 2 diabetes, type 1 diabetes is often considered a more serious condition because of how early it develops. The longer that you have diabetes, the more likely you are to suffer from complications and damage to your eyes, feet, kidneys, nerve endings, heart, and more. To avoid problems, the proper diagnosis and management of diabetes is essential. If you notice any signs or symptoms of diabetes in yourself or a loved one, seek medical attention immediately. Some of the most common symptoms of type 1 diabetes are feeling excessively thirsty and urinating more than usual. You may also experience a general sense of fatigue, persistent thrush, blurred vision, weight loss, and cuts or wounds that don’t heal.

There is no cure for type 1 diabetes, but with the proper management, you can live a long, healthy life. One of the most important aspects of diabetes management is checking your blood glucose levels throughout the day and administering insulin when your blood glucose levels are too high. There are also many things you can do to help stabilize your blood glucose levels, including having a diabetes friendly meal plan, getting plenty of exercise, prioritizing sleep, and staying hydrated with water throughout the day. If you’re diagnosed with diabetes, it’s important to take care of your mental health. Diabetes distress can result in abandoning healthy diabetes management techniques, which can ultimately lead to several serious, life-threatening conditions. If you’re struggling with your diabetes diagnosis, don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor or a medical professional. Help is available and you’re not alone. Diabetes support groups can also help you manage the stress and pressure associated with chronic diabetes management.

How Type 1 Diabetes is Related to Viral Exposure

For years, many scientists and researchers have been trying to determine what causes the onset of type 1 diabetes in children, especially those who have no genetic predisposition to the disease. Thanks to ongoing research in the diabetes community, it’s now understood that there are several different viruses that can influence the presence of autoimmune disorders such as type 1 diabetes. To better understand this relationship, here’s how type 1 diabetes is related to different viral exposures.

Epstein-Barr Virus

Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is a virus in the herpes family that can cause infectious mononucleosis and other illnesses. EBV is one of the most common types of human viruses and many children become infected with it at some point during adolescence. Once you’re infected with EBV, it becomes latent and lives in your cells without ongoing symptoms. It can be reactivated at times but is very rarely life threatening.

Research has found that individuals who have the Epstein-Barr virus are more susceptible to developing several different types of autoimmune disorders throughout their life, including type 1 diabetes. It’s suspected that this is due to the protein produced by EBV, called the EBNA2. EBNA2 binds to specific locations along the genome that are associated with different autoimmune disorders, which in turn changes how a gene is transcribed. This change in transcription can turn certain genes on or off, which alters the function of the cell. Change in cellular functioning is thought to be the reason that people with EBV are more likely to develop autoimmune disorders like type 1 diabetes. However, more research is needed to definitively understand the link between the two and how having EBV increases your risk for type 1 diabetes.


It’s also been found that type 1 diabetes can be triggered by a common virus called an enterovirus. Enteroviruses are a large group of viruses that tend to cause mild illnesses among individuals. There are several different types of enteroviruses, each of them causing different symptoms. While some enteroviruses are mild and bring about illnesses like the common cold, others are more serious and can lead to more severe complications, especially when it comes to poliovirus, enterovirus-D68, and coxsackievirus (hand, foot, and mouth disease).

There have been longitudinal studies done to look at the relationship between enteroviruses and autoimmune disorders like type 1 diabetes for years. It’s since been found that children who were exposed to enteroviruses are more likely to develop type 1 diabetes. However, this seems to disproportionately apply to children who carry a genetic variant in a surface protein of pancreatic beta cells.

In general, the more enterovirus infections that occur in children, the greater their risk for type 1 diabetes. In fact, it was found that children with diabetes have had about three times more enterovirus infections than those without type 1 diabetes. While there are no direct causal links identified, it’s believed that enteroviruses can cause damage to the pancreas, thus increasing a child’s risk of suffering from poor or inadequately performing insulin.

COVID-19 Virus

Concerns regarding the impact of COVID-19 remain high, especially in children who are currently unable to receive a vaccination. Unfortunately, a new study suggests that there may be a link between childhood COVID-19 cases and the development of type 1 diabetes. New diagnoses for type 1 diabetes have almost doubled during the pandemic and many of the children affected have evidence of a COVID-19 infection. It’s believed that the coronavirus spike proteins may actually attack insulin producing cells in the pancreas and destroy them in the process, thus increasing the risk for type 1 diabetes in children. A direct link has yet to be proven, but it should still be considered as a plausible explanation for the increase in type 1 diabetes diagnoses during the pandemic. To help reduce your child’s risk, make sure that they wear a mask in crowded, public areas, wash their hands frequently, and socially distance from others—especially those who may have been exposed to COVID-19. While children tend to have milder cases of COVID-19, we are still learning about the long-term complications and effects on the body.

There are some vaccines that protect children against these types of viruses, which can help reduce the occurrence of type 1 diabetes, but they’re not the only triggers. Genetics and other environmental factors can still increase a person’s risk for developing type 1 diabetes and more information is needed to further reduce the onset of cases in children. However, vaccines could prevent up to 50% of type 1 diabetes cases that are caused by viral infections, which is a huge development in managing such an invasive lifelong disease. In the meantime, to help keep your children safe and healthy, make sure that you practice good hygiene habits and encourage them to wash their hands with soap and water frequently throughout the day.

If you or your child begin to show signs of type 1 diabetes, getting the proper diagnosis is essential to the ongoing management of this disease. Untreated type 1 diabetes can result in a myriad of complications later in life, so it needs to be addressed as soon as possible to help minimize damages. Luckily, there are plenty of options for diabetes management. Byram Healthcare has a range of continuous blood glucose monitors to help. We also offer diabetes support and educational materials to give you everything you need for comprehensive care.