People with diabetes face higher risk of flu complications

Coming down with the flu often means feeling miserable for several days and enduring fever, muscle aches, sore throat and other symptoms.

But for people with diabetes, the misery is compounded by the potential for complications, which can pose serious health risks.

“Diabetes can depress the immune system, so the body doesn’t function as well as it should,” says Dr. Curtiss Boyington, an Infectious Disease Specialist at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital.

That means those who get the flu, even if their diabetes is under control, can get a much more severe illness and face a higher chance of being hospitalized than the general population, he says. The risk of complications ranges and can include a severe sinus infection, respiratory tract infection or pneumonia.

And there are plenty of people who need to be aware of the risks—an estimated 11 million Canadians are living with diabetes or pre-diabetes, according to Diabetes Canada.

When people with diabetes get sick, in addition to having a weaker immune system than other people, their blood sugar level is also affected, says Curtiss.

“Blood glucose typically goes up or it can also go way down. This happens when patients feel so poorly that their appetite decreases and they don’t eat as much.”

To reduce the chance of being hospitalized, Curtiss recommends getting the flu shot early in flu season, which typically runs from October until March. “It doesn’t protect you against the common cold, but it protects you against a much more serious illness.”

He also recommends getting a pneumonia vaccine (if appropriate) as added health protection during flu season.

After getting the flu vaccine, Curtiss says, it’s still important to take basic precautions such as following good hand-washing hygiene and avoiding people who appear sick. “The vaccine tries to cover the most common flu strains that might show up, but there are some years when there is not a perfect match.”    

People with diabetes who become very sick with the flu should see a doctor or go to a hospital, says Curtiss.

“Shortness of breath is a big one that we take seriously. If you have the flu and are experiencing other symptoms such as shortness of breath, getting tired easily or feeling winded after a flight of stairs, it is time to seek medical attention.”

Contribute to The Vital Beat

Have a story to share about health care? An idea for an article? We value all contributions.

Submit an idea