Why Those with Diabetes Shouldn’t Skip the Flu Shot

Your Health | one year ago

Why Those with Diabetes Shouldn't Skip the Flu Shot

Millions of Americans get the flu in a given year — and it can lead to serious complications. We spoke to Shwetha Sudhakar, MD, an endocrinologist at Atrium Health about why it’s particularly important for diabetics to get the flu shot every year.

No one wants to get the flu this winter. It’s a serious illness that can leave you in bed for days — and feeling pretty miserable. But for people with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, avoiding the flu is especially important. Those with the disease, even when well-managed, are at a higher risk of certain flu-related health complications, including pneumonia, sinus infections, ear infections or worsening of existing health conditions. That’s why it’s so important to get a flu shot in order to lower your risks of developing serious flu-related complications. The flu vaccine may not fully prevent a person from contracting the illness, but it helps to reduce the severity of symptoms and helps to prevent these serious health complications.   

Shwetha Sudhakar, MD, an Atrium Health endocrinologist who is affiliated with both Levine Cancer Institute and Carolinas Diabetes Center, spoke with us about the importance of diabetics getting the flu vaccination this flu season.

Diabetes and the immune system

According to the CDC, nearly 30 million Americans suffer from either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. It’s an increasingly common disease and nearly everyone is affected, whether they have the disease or know a loved one who does.

“Diabetes mellitus is a chronic disease of the metabolism characterized by elevated blood glucose,” explains Dr. Sudhakar. “Type 1, which comprises 5 to 10 percent of cases, is caused by absolute insulin deficiency and Type 2, which comprises 90 percent of the cases, is caused by variable degrees of insulin resistance and deficiency.”

Diabetics have suppressed immune systems. The higher the blood sugar, the lower the immunity – which is where the increased risk for flu-related complications arises. The immune system is a network of bodily structures that defend against disease and infection. When the immune system is weakened, the body has a tougher time warding off serious illnesses. This gives simple illnesses – like the flu – an ability to turn into something more serious.

Know the risks

Complications are a possibility and it’s important to know what exactly these complications look like. “Stress by infections like the flu can hamper glucose control,” says Dr. Sudhakar. Diabetics who check their blood sugar regularly will realize something is amiss when blood sugar levels start to look out of the ordinary. Compromised glucose control can ultimately lead to diabetic ketoacidosis, a serious complication that occurs when the body cannot effectively use the existing insulin, which requires hospital admission.

It’s also important for diabetic patients to be aware that they are at increased risk for pneumonia and heart problems. Taking the right precautions to avoid these illnesses is vital.

Prevention is key

Vaccines are powerful and can drastically lower your chances of contracting an illness. But because the flu virus is complex, the vaccine isn’t always perfect at preventing the illness. That’s why it’s important to take other precautions in addition to getting vaccinated. 

“Flu-related complications are particularly high for obese individuals,” says Dr. Sudhakar. “But hand hygiene and avoiding sick contacts are useful ways to decrease your chances of getting the flu.” Because the flu is a virus that is spread through the air, make sure to avoid contact with those who’ve had the flu. Contact can mean touching surfaces that were touched by someone with the flu or simply breathing the same air.

In general, being obese or overweight while having diabetes increases your risk for complications. If you’re having trouble managing your weight, talk to your doctor about what your options are and how you can go about developing a healthier lifestyle.

If you do get the flu

In the event that you do get the flu, it’s important to take action immediately. “If you find that you’re unable to control your blood sugar at home with your usual medications and insulin, you need to seek medical help,” says Dr. Sudhakar. Nausea, vomiting, increased thirst and urination tend to be among the first signs of diabetic ketoacidosis.

While diabetics carry a higher risk of flu-related complications, don’t panic — instead, be proactive and get vaccinated. Throughout flu season, be sure to keep a careful eye on your body and seek out medical help if you feel something is wrong.