Diabetes and COVID-19: what you need to know

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently declared the novel COVID-19 virus to be a pandemic. Since then, we have all witnessed the effects of the virus in multiple spheres of everyday life. We are told that people with chronic diseases and those who are elderly are particularly at risk of experiencing critical illness, which could lead to death.

If you are diabetic, you have probably wondered how the virus may affect you. This article addresses some of the common questions around diabetes and COVID-19.

Are people living with diabetes more likely to contract COVID-19?

We do not have enough data to suggest that people with diabetes are more likely to get the virus. Rather, the concern is that people with diabetes may suffer worse outcomes than those without diabetes. This is based on data from China, where diabetes was associated with a much greater rate of complications.

However, according to the American Diabetes Association, the risk of getting severely ill from the virus is much lower if blood sugar levels are well managed. But when diabetes is uncontrolled, the body’s ability to fight off infections is compromised.

What should I do if I start developing symptoms of COVID-19?

If you develop any of the symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, cough, shortness of breath, severe tiredness), call your doctor. Make sure that you have your glucose readings and on hand. Remember to ask your doctor all of your questions about managing your glucose levels, as being ill may affect your blood glucose control.

If you experience any of the following emergency signs, you need to get immediate medical attention:

  • difficulty breathing
  • persistent chest pain
  • confusion
  • inability to get up
  • blue face or lips

How do I manage my diabetes if I have COVID-19?

If you have symptoms of COVID-19, you can take the following steps:

  • Follow your doctor’s advice regarding any changes is your medication.
  • If you monitor your blood glucose levels at home, you may need to do so more regularly.
  • Be conscious of any signs of hyperglycemia, such as extreme thirst, passing more urine than normal, headaches, or extreme tiredness. Call your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.
  • Keep eating regular, small meals.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.
  • If you have type 1 diabetes, check your blood sugar at least every four hours, even throughout the night. If your blood glucose is higher than the targets given to you by your doctor, or if ketones are present in your urine, call your doctor.

What can I do to reduce my risk of contracting of COVID-19?

You and your family can follow public health advice and the WHO’s advice:

  • Stay at home if at all possible
  • Practice social distancing when you are not at home
  • Regularly wash your hands thoroughly
  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.

If someone in your house is ill, they should stay in their own room with the door closed if possible. Only one family member should care for the affected person in order to minimize personal contact.

How can I better manage my diabetes?

You can optimize your blood glucose control to reduce your risk of developing severe illness, should you contract COVID-19. Now is the time to prioritize of your health. Here are a few steps that you can take:

  • Regularly check your blood glucose levels if you are able to do so. You can keep a diary to record your intake and glucose readings – this may help you to identify foods that cause blood glucose highs or lows.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet with portion-controlled meals. Aim to fill one half of your plate with vegetables and the other half with lean protein and high-fiber starches.
  • Limit foods high in refined carbohydrates, added sugars and saturated fats.
  • Include high fiber foods like vegetables, fruit, whole-grains, oats, and legumes. Frozen veg is a great option to help limit shopping trips.
  • Exercise daily. Home exercise videos, gardening, and doing chores around the house are all great ways to move your body at home.
  • Be careful with alcohol, as excessive intake can affect your glucose control. If you drink, stick to no more than one drink per day for females or two drinks for males.
  • If your glucose levels are uncontrolled, call your doctor to discuss whether your medication needs to be adjusted.
  • Seek help from a registered dietitian, who can help you to find a dietary approach that works for you. Most dietitians will be willing to conduct online video consultations to support you in this time.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me. I would be happy to help answer your questions.

Written by Marna Oettle, RD (SA)

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