Whether you have a head cold or the flu, being sick can put all of your activities on hold. You’re forced to stop and take care of yourself. But, if you have diabetes, this demands extra attention.
Why is that? When you’re sick, you’re more likely to have a high blood sugar (glucose) level, this is called hyperglycemia. This happens because your body creates more hormones to fight infection, and these hormones can counteract the effects of insulin. If insulin cannot do its job, then glucose builds up in the blood.
Test Your Blood Sugar Often
Since being sick puts you at risk for hyperglycemia, check your blood glucose more often. You may need to test several times a day, even if your normal routine is to test just once a day.
What’s considered high? This depends on your target range. According to the American Diabetes Association, you should aim for tight control, keeping glucose levels as close to normal as possible (70-130 milligrams per deciliter [mg/dl] before a meal, less than 180 mg/dl after a meal). But not everyone is able to achieve this. Ask your doctor what levels are right for you and when you should call her, such as when you get two high tests in a row.
You also need to know how to treat high glucose levels—the amount of insulin you should give yourself to bring the levels down. If you take oral diabetes medication, find out how to adjust the dose. If you don’t already have this information, work with your doctor to create a “ sick day plan ” so that you’ll be prepared.
In addition to testing your blood glucose levels, be alert for the symptoms of hyperglycemia: having to urinate frequently, being very thirsty, and having blurry vision.
Test for Ketoacidosis
If you have diabetes and high glucose levels, you are at risk for a dangerous condition called ketoacidosis. Ketoacidosis happens because the body does not have enough insulin, prompting the liver to make chemicals (ketones) that can accumulate and cause you to become seriously ill. Symptoms usually begin with very dry mouth and frequent urination. Later, you may experience fatigue, dry or flushed skin, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, difficulty breathing, fruity odor on breath, and confusion. If you have any of these symptoms, call 911.
Ketone levels can be checked with urine tests that are sold at drug stores. Ask your doctor whether you should check for ketones while you are sick and when you should test (eg, blood glucose level over 240 mg/dl). Call the doctor if the results show moderate amounts of ketones after two tests.
Stick to Your Routine
When you are feeling nauseous or vomiting, the last thing you want to do is eat. But when you have diabetes, it becomes extremely important to stick to your regular meal plan. Your body needs the amount of carbohydrates that it’s accustomed to.
So how do you do this? Ask your doctor or dietician how to make food exchanges so you get the nutrients that you need. For example, try eating broth-based soups, saltine crackers, and frozen fruit bars. If you’ve had vomiting or diarrhea, replenish the lost fluids. When your glucose levels fall below 70 mg/dl you may drink soft drinks (with sugar) and sports drinks (with sugar and carbs). Some of the symptoms of having a low sugar (hypoglycemia) include shakiness, dizziness, headache, sweating, and hunger.
Remember to continue taking your insulin even if you are not eating your regular diet. However, your dose of insulin may need to be adjusted. Call your doctor if you have severe vomiting or diarrhea or your eating pattern has changed a lot.
Take Your Temp and Carefully Choose Cold Medicines
Have a thermometer and cold medicine in your medicine cabinet. If your temperature is over 101°F, call the doctor. Read the labels carefully on the cold medicines because some contain ingredients, like pseudoephedrine in decongestants, that can raise your blood glucose level. Other medicines have sugar or alcohol, which are most likely fine when taken as directed. But to be safe, you may want to opt for the ones that are sugar-free and alcohol-free. Also, if you have kidney disease, avoid all products that contain ibuprofen, which can cause kidney failure. Talk to your doctor about which over-the-counter drugs are safe for you.
Monitor Your Cold
Keep close tabs on your cold. If a couple of days have passed and you don’t feel better, call the doctor. Provide details about your illness—when you got sick, what your symptoms are, what you’ve been eating and drinking, what your glucose and ketone levels are, and any other important facts. If you have fatigue, stomach or chest pain, or breathing difficulty, call the doctor right away.
Get Your Shots
Avoid the flu by getting the flu shot once a year, typically in October or November. If you have never been vaccinated against pneumonia, ask your doctor. One shot is all that’s needed to protect you from this life-threatening infection.
Make Your Sick Day Plan
If you haven’t already made a “sick day plan” with your doctor, schedule an appointment to discuss:
- What blood glucose levels are considered high for you and when you should call the doctor
- How to adjust your medication to bring the blood glucose level back into the normal range
- How often you should test for ketones and when you should call the doctor
- What food exchanges you can make if you are not feeling well enough to eat your regular diet
- Which cold medications are safe for you
- Whether you’ve had your flu and pneumonia shots
Being prepared can go a long way to help you to cope with your illness and to avoid problems, like hyperglycemia.
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