What Are Flu-Like Symptoms of Diabetes?

Here's how to recognize severe complications of diabetes that might look like the flu.

In the United States, 30.3 million people, or 9.4% of the population, had diabetes in 2015. More than one-quarter of those people didn’t know they had diabetes. That number continues to grow, with about two million adults diagnosed yearly.

Some of the most common complications of diabetes, such as heart attack and stroke, can be years in the making. However, severe complications can come on suddenly. Some people may even mistake those complications for something as common as the flu. 

What Is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition that occurs when your blood glucose, also known as blood sugar, is too high. Glucose is your body's main energy source and comes from the food you eat. 

When a person has diabetes, the body doesn't respond to insulin well or the pancreas doesn't make any or very little insulin. Insulin is a hormone responsible for helping blood sugar enter cells, where it can then be used as energy. So with insufficient insulin levels, blood sugar levels go up.

Over time, having too much sugar in your blood can cause health problems, such as kidney disease, heart disease, stroke, foot problems, eye disease, and others.

Diabetes has no cure. However, you can take steps to manage your diabetes and stay healthy.

Flu-Like Diabetes Complications

Uncontrolled high blood sugar can cause diabetic hyperglycemic hyperosmolar syndrome (HHS) and diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). HHS and DKA cause flu-like symptoms, which may be dangerously misleading. Both can result in a diabetic coma and can be fatal.

Diabetic Hyperglycemic Hyperosmolar Syndrome

HHS, often seen with type 2 diabetes, happens when the body has extremely high blood sugar levels without ketones. With HHS, your body tries to get rid of excess blood sugar by increasing urine output. Urinating too much causes severe dehydration, which, in extreme cases, leads to seizures, coma, or even death.

Symptoms of HHS may include:

  • Increased thirst and urination
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Dry mouth and tongue
  • Fever
  • Seizures
  • Being confused

Diabetic Ketoacidosis

With DKA, a lack of insulin causes the body to burn fat, leading to a toxic build-up of acids called ketones in the blood.

Common symptoms of DKA can include:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Dehydration
  • Dry skin and mouth
  • Flushed skin
  • Increased thirst and urination that lasts longer than one day
  • Breath that smells fruity
  • Headache
  • Stiff and achy muscles
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain

Diabetes and the Flu

Managing diabetes becomes especially important when it comes to the flu itself. Severe or fatal complications arising from the flu are likely to happen to individuals with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Additionally, having diabetes and getting sick from the flu can worsen DKA.

A flu infection can cause blood sugar levels to spike. In turn, this causes the immune system to have a hard time working against the infection. Also, high blood sugar can increase the production of an influenza virus and lead to other influenza complications.

How To Avoid Complications

You can manage diabetes and live a long and healthy life by caring for yourself daily. With the help of a team of healthcare providers, you can create a plan to manage your diabetes. 

Also, you can do the following to minimize your risk of developing dangerous complications from diabetes:

  • Watch for diabetes symptoms and get tested if you're at risk: Symptoms can include urinating a lot (particularly if you have to get up at night to go) or severe thirst. Although, many people have no symptoms at all. If you're at risk, ask a healthcare provider about testing your blood sugar tested.
  • Maintain healthy blood sugar levels: If you have type 2 diabetes, keep your blood sugar under control by eating healthfully, exercising, and taking medication if necessary. People with type 2 diabetes can take pills or injections of insulin or other drugs to control their blood sugar. People with type 1 diabetes have fewer options but must take insulin to survive.
  • Stay physically active: For people at risk of type 2 diabetes, exercise is one of the best ways to reduce that risk and avoid complications.
  • Get your flu shot yearly: That goes for everyone, regardless of a diabetes diagnosis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all people over the age of 6 months get vaccinated, especially those with weak immune systems, such as people with diabetes and those over the age of 65.

A Quick Review

Diabetes affects millions of Americans, and the number continues to rise. While people with diabetes can often manage their condition, complications can happen. Some complications, such as HHS and DKA, resemble the flu but can be fatal.

People with diabetes and the flu may have a higher risk of a diabetic coma than normal. So, it's essential to keep track of symptoms and manage diabetes with a team of healthcare providers.

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9 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Preventing diabetes.

  3. National Library of Medicine. Diabetic hyperglycemic hyperosmolar syndrome.

  4. National Library of Medicine. Diabetic ketoacidosis.

  5. Macias AE, McElhaney JE, Chaves SS, et al. The disease burden of influenza beyond respiratory illnessVaccine. 2021;39:A6-A14. doi:10.1016/j.vaccine.2020.09.048

  6. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Symptoms & causes of diabetes.

  7. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Diabetes diet, eating, & physical activity.

  8. Borhade MB, Singh S. Diabetes mellitus and exercise. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2022.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Who needs a flu vaccine.

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