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Diabetes and the flu: A dangerous combination

If you have diabetes, flu season should trigger a special alert for you. Diabetes can weaken your immune system, allowing the flu to become much more serious. That makes precautions against the flu particularly important for people with this disease.

Higher risks

People who have diabetes are more likely to be hospitalized from the flu or its complications than people who don't have diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

The flu also causes problems by raising your blood glucose. Skipping meals because you feel too sick to eat can make your glucose rise and fall as well.

Protect yourself

The best way to avoid these risks is to take precautions against getting the flu. According to CDC, you should take these steps:

  • Get a flu shot by the end of October. This is the most important thing you can do to avoid getting the flu. You should get the shot, not the nasal spray vaccine.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If that's not possible, use an alcohol-based hand cleaner.
  • Avoid getting close to people who are sick.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs can enter your body that way.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze, and throw the tissue away. Or sneeze or cough into your sleeve, near the inside of your elbow.

It's also important to get a pneumonia (pneumococcal) vaccination, since the flu puts you at higher risk for this disease. Adults may need one shot before age 65.

If you do get sick

If you have symptoms of the flu, you should let your doctor know right away. Prescription medicine can make your illness milder and help prevent serious complications, but it works best if you start taking it within two days of getting sick. Watch for a sore throat, cough and body aches. The flu can also cause a headache, chills and a fever.

You'll need to take special care of yourself if you get the flu. For starters, stay home from school or work until you feel better. Keep taking your diabetes pills or insulin, even if you can't eat. Your doctor may tell you to take more insulin while you're sick.

CDC lists these additional steps:

  • Try to eat as you normally would, while drinking extra liquids (make sure they're calorie-free).
  • Ask your doctor how often you should test and record your blood glucose.

Go to the emergency department if you:

  • Lose five pounds or more during your illness.
  • Have a blood sugar reading lower than 60 mg/dL.
  • Have a temperature over 101 degrees for 24 hours.
  • Have severe diarrhea.
  • Feel too sick to eat normally and can't keep food down for more than 24 hours.
  • Have trouble breathing.
  • Can't think clearly.
  • Have moderate or large amounts of ketones in your urine.

Reviewed 7/13/2023

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