In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic. Since then, much has been written about diabetes and COVID-19. If you live with diabetes, does that mean you will contract the virus? Does COVID-19 cause diabetes? Let’s break down what the research tells us in order to answer both questions.
Does having diabetes mean you will automatically develop COVID-19?
The good news is no. Researchers have found that adults living with diabetes are not more likely to become infected with COVID-19 than adults without diabetes. But if they do get COVID, adults with type 1 or type 2 diabetes are more likely to have serious symptoms and complications, such as pneumonia, and they are more likely to go to the hospital. They are also more likely to be sicker and die in hospital, compared with those without diabetes. There appears to be an association between having higher blood sugar (that is consistently above target range) prior to infection and being more likely to experience a severe COVID-19 infection. People who already have diabetes-related health problems (such as cardiovascular disease) or are older are more likely to have worse outcomes if they get COVID, no matter what type of diabetes they have.
So, what can you do to stay safe? Protect yourself from COVID by following public health guidelines in your community (like wearing a mask around others, maintaining physical distancing, and practising good hand hygiene) and getting vaccinated against the virus. Maintaining healthy behaviours—such as being active daily and eating regular, healthy meals—will help to keep your blood sugar in your target range.
Can COVID-19 cause diabetes?
There have been reports in the media that COVID can cause diabetes. Our knowledge about the virus is still evolving, and it will take time to get the research we need to fully understand whether this is the case. However, there are a few things we do know that might help us understand this news.
- If someone who has COVID-19 is also diagnosed with diabetes for the first time, it might be that they developed type 2 diabetes before the pandemic and were just not aware of it. In Canada, almost 1.7 million people may have type 2 diabetes and not know it. That’s because not everyone knows the warning signs of diabetes, such as high blood pressure. If you think you might be at risk of type 2 diabetes, you can take the quick online CANRISK questionnaire. You can also speak with your doctor, nurse practitioner, or pharmacist.
- We know that during the pandemic, not as many people have been getting the health care that they need. Some are worried about contracting the virus if they attend in-person appointments or go to the hospital, while others have had difficulty with the switch to virtual care. Also, they may not be able to take time off work to visit their healthcare provider for treatment. We encourage people to call their healthcare provider or go to the emergency department if needed.
- Some people who develop high blood sugar, also known as hyperglycemia, after being infected with COVID-19 may only experience high levels while their body fights the virus. Once they have recovered, their blood sugar levels may return to previous levels. This was the case during SARS, the first coronavirus outbreak in 2002-2004, and those patients’ blood sugar levels returned to normal when they got better.
- While some research shows that viruses may play a role in the development of type 1 diabetes, a diabetes diagnosis usually takes months or years to show up after someone has had a virus. It’s too soon to tell if this is happening with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
At this early stage, the research shows an association between getting COVID-19 and then being diagnosed with diabetes. This doesn’t necessarily mean that COVID causes diabetes. For example, an increase in sales of ice cream cones and sunglasses during the summer is an association: the ice cream sales are not causing the sunglasses sales. But the warm, sunny weather during the summer months is causing the increase in sales of both items.
When it comes to COVID-19 and diabetes, more long-term research is needed to figure out any associations versus potential causation. Diabetes Canada will continue to monitor the research and provide updates on what it means for people affected by diabetes. As we learn new information, we’ll share it with you.
Any advice for those who are worried about COVID or for anyone who is worried they may be at risk of developing diabetes?
If you or someone you know gets the virus, you can read this FAQ about COVID-19 and diabetes. If you have diabetes and you become unwell for any reason, it is important to practise sick day management. Continue following public health measures where you live and get vaccinated, if you haven’t already. The vaccines are safe for people living with diabetes.
If you think you might have diabetes, speak with your healthcare provider. Twenty people are diagnosed with diabetes every hour of every day. Anyone over the age of 40 should be tested for diabetes every three years. If you have one or more risk factors, you should be tested earlier and more frequently.
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