What happens when you are sick
When you are sick, your body reacts by releasing hormones to fight infection. But these hormones raise blood sugar levels and at the same time make it more difficult for insulin to lower blood sugar. When you have diabetes, even a minor illness can lead to dangerously high blood sugar. This may cause life-threatening complications, such as diabetic ketoacidosis or a hyperosmolar state.
Work with your doctor or diabetes educator to make a sick-day plan for you or your child who has diabetes. Discuss your target blood sugar goal during an illness, how you should adjust your insulin dose and timing (if you take insulin), and when you need to contact your doctor for help. Also, make sure you know how often to check your blood sugar and your ketone levels. Keep your plan in a convenient place, and include contact information in case you need to reach your doctor at night or on the weekends.
Steps to take during an illness
Here are some general sick-day guidelines:
- Continue taking your diabetes medicine even if you are vomiting and having trouble eating or drinking. Your blood sugar may continue to rise because of your illness. If you cannot take your medicines, call your doctor and discuss whether you need to adjust your insulin dose or other medicine.
- Try to eat your normal types and amounts of food and to drink extra fluids. Ask your doctor how often and how much you should eat and drink when you are sick.
- If your blood sugar level is higher than the blood sugar level your doctor recommends, for example, 240 mg/dL, drink extra liquids that do not contain sugar, such as water or sugar-free cola.
- If you cannot eat the foods in your regular diet, a general guideline is to try to eat or drink 50 grams (g) of carbohydrate every 3 to 4 hours. Your doctor may suggest more or less carbohydrate. Some ideas include broth, juice, soup, crackers, gelatin, and applesauce.
- Check your blood sugar at least every 3 to 4 hours, or more often if it is rising quickly, even through the night. If your doctor has told you to take an extra insulin dose for high blood sugar levels, take the appropriate amount. If you take insulin and your doctor has not told you to take a specific amount of additional insulin, call him or her for advice.
- If you take insulin, do a test for ketones, especially when you have high blood sugar.
- Frequently weigh yourself and check your temperature, breathing rate, and pulse. If you are losing weight and your temperature, breathing rate, and pulse are increasing, contact a doctor. You may be getting worse.
- Don't take any nonprescription medicines without talking with your doctor. Many nonprescription medicines affect your blood sugar level.
When to call your doctor
Minor illnesses in people with diabetes—especially children with type 1 diabetes—can lead to very high blood sugar levels and possible emergencies. When children are sick, watch them closely for signs that they need immediate medical attention. Call 911 or other emergency services if you or your child has:
- Symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), such as abdominal (belly) pain, vomiting, rapid breathing, fruity-smelling breath, or severe drowsiness.
- Symptoms of dehydration, such as a dry mouth and very yellow or dark urine. Dehydration is particularly dangerous in children and may be caused by vomiting and diarrhea.
- A high blood sugar level that continues.
It may not be necessary to call your doctor every time you or your child with diabetes has a mild illness, such as a cold. But it is a good idea to call for advice when you are sick and:
- You have a blood sugar level that stays higher than the level the doctor has set for you, for example, 240 mg/dL for two or more readings.
- You have moderate or large amounts of ketones in the urine or a high level of blood ketones (for example, more than 0.6 mmol/L).
- You still have a fever and are not feeling better after a few days.
- You are vomiting or having diarrhea for more than 6 hours.
When you are sick, write down the medicines you have been taking and whether you have changed the dosage of your diabetes medicines based on your sick-day plan. Also note changes in your body temperature, weight, blood sugar, and ketone levels. Have this information with you when you talk to your doctor.
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Current as of: December 19, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Rhonda O'Brien MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator