Living with diabetes – when you are ill
Am I more prone to infections because I have diabetes?
Simply having diabetes does not make you more prone to common illnesses than anyone else. But if your blood glucose level is consistently high – for example, more than 180 mg/dl – this increases your vulnerability to infection because your white blood cells cannot fight bacteria and viruses as effectively as usual.
How does an infection, such as a cold or flu, affect my blood glucose level?
An infection is likely to raise your blood glucose level, because part of your body’s natural reaction to illness is to produce more glucose. You also produce stress hormones, such as epinephrine and cortisol, that make your natural or infected insulin less efficient at controlling your blood glucose level. So, even if you are not eating any food, your blood glucose level is likely to be elevated.
What should I do about my diabetes if I become ill?
Testing your blood glucose level at least every four hours will tell you whether it is above 180 mg/dl – if it is, you will need to adjust your medication. If you feel too ill to do blood tests or you are unsure what to do, consult your doctor sooner rather than later.
What should I do about eating and drinking when I am ill?
Try not to stop eating and drinking – you need food and liquid to help you fight disease, prevent dehydration, and keep your temperature down. Drink at least 4 points of sugar-free fluids every day to prevent dehydration. If you are vomiting uncontrollably, contact your health professional urgently.
If I can’t eat when I’m ill, should I still take my pills and insulin?
Yes, your body produces glucose even if you are not eating, and it may produce more glucose than usual when you are ill. Continuing to take your pills or insulin is essential to keep your blood glucose level down, and you may even need to temporarily increase your dose. You can reduce the dose when you recover. If you have a longer-term illness, taking your medication to keep your blood glucose within the recommended range will help prevent the long-term complications of diabetes.
I usually take cough medicine and flu remedies when I’m ill. Can I still do this?
Drugs and remedies that you buy over the counter are safe to use when you have diabetes. Even drugs that contain sugar, such as cough syrup, will not have a significant effect on your blood glucose level because the dose that you will need to take is fairly small. If you prefer, you can ask your pharmacist to recommend a low-sugar product.
What effect would a stomach upset have on my blood glucose?
Bouts of vomiting and diarrhea may be short-lived but they can have a serious effect on your diabetes within the space of a few hours. The main danger is that your blood glucose level can rise very high, causing severe dehydration. Doing regular blood glucose tests – or asking someone to do this for you if you are not well enough – will give you information about your diabetes control and when to contact your doctor.
Is it true that severe dehydration can lead to a coma?
Severe dehydration can lead to a condition known as nonketotic hyperosmolar state (HONK), which may result in a coma. This is why, if you can’t take your pills or keep food or fluids down, you should contact your health professional or hospital as soon as possible.