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Patients with diabetes are at a much higher risk of developing severe complications of the flu. This article outlines these potential complications and why diabetes patients should not skip their flu shot.

Doctors always recommend getting a flu shot at the beginning of every flu season. Turns out, this is even more important if you have diabetes. While healthy people who get the flu are unlikely to suffer serious complications, diabetes patients who contract the flu are at a much higher risk.

In fact, studies have shown that patients with diabetes are three times more likely to be hospitalized due to the flu and three times more likely to actually die from the flu than healthy people. Therefore, diabetics need to take the flu very seriously and try their best to prevent it.

What exactly is the flu?

The flu is a virus that is scientifically known as the influenza virus. As you may know, the flu is extremely contagious because the virus spreads when patients either cough or sneeze, releasing the virus into the atmosphere. Therefore, if you happen to be near a person that has the flu, there is a good chance you will catch it. Once in your body, the flu virus travels to your respiratory tract (lungs) and infects it. In addition to breathing it in, people can also get the flu by touching surfaces that have been sneezed or coughed on (such as a door knob), and then touching their mouth, nose, or eyes.

The flu has been shown to be rather dangerous for certain types of individuals, including children, the elderly, and immunocompromised people. Its symptoms include:

  • Severe aches in the joints
  • Muscle aches
  • Pain or aches around the eyes
  • Having a fever
  • Warm skin
  • Headache
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Nasal discharge

So, why does does diabetes make me vulnerable to the flu?

Diabetics experience more complications than healthy individual who get the flu. Why is that?

  • Because diabetics have an impaired immune system, they are less able to fight the infection. Consistent high blood sugar levels cause immune system dysfunction.
  • Getting the flu can actually make your diabetes harder to control because infections increase your blood sugar levels. This, in turn, makes your immune system weaker. Therefore, flu and diabetes can be part of a self-perpetuating cycle that can cause patients to take a much longer time to heal than a healthy person.
  • Diabetics have a hard time controlling their blood sugar levels, which can fluctuate. While most patients with diabetes have high blood sugar levels most of the time, they can also experience low sugar levels which can be dangerous. Patients need to eat to keep their blood sugar levels in an appropriate range. Unfortunately, people with the flu don’t often want to eat, and therefore, are at a much higher risk for developing low blood sugar levels.

So, how do I prevent the flu?

The most important and best thing you can do to prevent the flu is to get a flu vaccine. People with diabetes should get vaccinated because it could actually save your life. Furthermore, if you work or live with people who have diabetes, you should also get the flu vaccine so that they have a lower risk of getting the infection.

Some people think that if they refrain from interacting with people once they start developing flu symptoms, they can avoid spreading it. This is untrue. People actually become contagious a day before the symptoms appear and can continue to sprea the flu up to five days after.

So, how do I treat the flu?

You need to see a doctor immediately if you have symptoms that are indicative of the flu and you have diabetes. These are some of the treatments for the flu:

  • Prescription antivirals, which can help reduce the duration of your illness and help prevent serious complications. These need to be started within 48 hours of the first flu symptoms, and the earlier you start taking antivirals, the better.
  • Over-the-counter medication also helps patients with flu symptoms, though they don’t kill the infection or its potential complications. You should try to avoid over-the-counter medications that contain non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) as they increases the risk for heart problems and stroke.
  • Once you get the flu, you should be checking your blood sugar levels consistently to keep an eye on the fluctuation in your blood sugar levels. If they drop, you should eat something rich in carbohydrates right away so you sugar levels can bounce back.

What are the potential complications of the flu?

Pneumonia, a potentially deadly chest infection, is one of the most serious flu complications. Other complications, though much rarer, may include:

  • Tonsillitis 
  • Meningitis
  • Encephalitis

Conclusion

Do not skip your flu vaccine and make sure your entire family gets it too. While a flu shot won't guarantee you won't get the flu, it will drastically lower your odds and also make the illness milder if you still end up with it. You should also be practicing proper hand hygiene, staying away from sick people, and could consider avoiding especially crowded spaces during flu season.

  • Colquhoun, A. J., Nicholson, K. G., Botha, J. L., & Raymond, N. T. (1997). Effectiveness of influenza vaccine in reducing hospital admissions in people with diabetes. Epidemiology & Infection, 119(3), 335-341. Looijmans-Van den Akker, I., Verheij, T. J., Buskens, E., Nichol, K. L., Rutten, G. E., & Hak, E. (2006). Clinical effectiveness of first and repeat influenza vaccination in adult and elderly diabetic patients. Diabetes care, 29(8), 1771-1776.
  • American Diabetes Association. (2004). Influenza and pneumococcal immunization in diabetes. Diabetes care, 27(suppl 1), s111-s113.
  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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