How to Manage Diabetes During Illness
Battling a cold, getting over an injury or undergoing surgery is no fun for anyone. For people with diabetes, managing blood sugar is an extra concern. The stress of illness or injury can cause blood sugar to rise and make insulin less effective. This can lead to serious problems, including diabetic coma. That’s why it’s important to know what to do when illness strikes.
When you’re sick, your blood sugar can be high even if you’re not eating much. So it’s especially important to take your diabetes medication on time. You might need extra medication. If you take diabetes pills, you may also need to take insulin until you’ve recovered. And if you already take insulin, you may need more than usual.
When you’re ill, check your blood glucose often. Have someone help you if you can’t do it yourself. You may need to check ketones, too. Record the results in case you need to report them to your health care provider.
Food and fluids
Try to follow your diabetes meal plan. Drink plenty of calorie-free fluids, especially water. These fluids help rid your body of extra glucose and prevent dehydration. If you can’t eat or keep down enough solid food, you may need to drink beverages that contain sugar, such as apple juice. Talk to your health care provider if you have questions about your food and beverage intake.
The best way to cope with illness is to develop a sick-day plan before you get sick. Work with your diabetes care team to find out what type of diabetes medication to take while sick and how much you will need. Ask how often you should check blood glucose and ketones. Check with your health care provider about over-the-counter, sugar-free cold medicines that are safe for you to take. Also list alternative food and beverage options for when you can’t eat normally. Include the phone numbers of your diabetes care team so that you can reach them quickly if needed. Some diabetes care teams want their ill patients to call every day for instructions.
When to get help
According to the CDC, you should call for help if:
You feel sleepy and can't think clearly
You can't eat for more than six hours and can't keep any food down
You lose five or more pounds (when you're not trying to lose weight)
Your temperature increases to over 101° F (38° C)
Your blood glucose is lower than 60 mg/dL or stays over 300 mg/dL
You have trouble breathing
You have diarrhea
With a plan in place, you’ll have peace of mind the next time illness or injury lays you low.
- Grantham, Paula, RN, BSN
- MMI board-certified, academically-affiliated clinician