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Dealing With a Head Cold When You Have Diabetes

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Dealing With a Head Cold When You Have Diabetes

You know that feeling: You start sneezing, your nose drips like a faucet, and your throat feels like sandpaper. You might have a headache, and you can’t wait to crawl into bed. Before you know what has hit you, you have a cold, also known as the “common cold”.

Having a cold is miserable for anyone, but if you have diabetes, you may find that managing your blood sugars while you deal with a cold is more than you can bear. That’s because any type of illness or infection signals the body to release hormones that can lead to higher blood sugars. And when you aren’t feeling well, you may not have the energy to deal with those high blood sugars, either.

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Unfortunately, there’s no cure for the common cold. But there are steps that you can take to help you feel better and weather that cold so that you can focus on your diabetes — and getting better at the same time.

Choose cold medicines wisely

Cold medicines and pain relievers can help with cold symptoms, but be careful with what you choose, since some medicines contain ingredients that might impact your blood sugar or worsen complications, such as kidney disease. If you need a cold medicine, pick one based on your symptoms. For example, if you’re stuffed up, go with a medicine that helps to relieve congestion, such as one that contains pseudoephedrine. If a cough is what ails you, choose a medicine containing dextromethorphan, guaifenesin, or diphenhydramine. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help with aches, pains, or fever. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen should be used with caution if you have kidney or liver disease.

  • Decongestants can affect blood sugars and may increase blood pressure.
  • Cough syrups may contain alcohol and/or sugar; both ingredients can affect blood sugar. Small amounts of cough syrup may be OK, but to be on the safe side, choose a sugar-free cough syrup.
  • If you’re not sure which medicines are best for you, don’t hesitate to check with your health care provider or the pharmacist about the best cold medicine and pain reliever options for you.

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Check your blood sugars often

Keeping tabs on your blood sugars is important when you have any type of illness. Check your blood sugars at least four times a day. If you use CGM, pay special attention to high (and low) alerts. In general, blood sugar levels that consistently run above 250 are an indication to give your provider a call. If you have type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes and you take insulin, your provider may suggest that you also check your urine for ketones. Call your provider if you have moderate to high ketone levels. Your provider will likely consider increasing the dose of your diabetes medicine, at least temporarily, until you recover.

Drink plenty of fluids

Aim to drink at least 8 ounces of calorie-free fluid every hour to avoid becoming dehydrated, especially if your blood sugars are running higher than usual. Water, seltzer water, unsweetened tea, and sugar-free energy drinks are good options. If you’re having trouble eating solid foods, alternate calorie-free fluids with fluids that contain carbohydrate, including juice, milk, sweetened tea, or regular soda.

Make a point to eat

You might find it hard to eat anything when you have a cold, especially if you have a sore throat and head congestion. But remember that your body needs healthy foods to help you recover as quickly as possible, and not eating enough can put you at risk for low blood sugars (hypoglycemia). Here are some ways to keep you nourished:

  • Chicken soup: A steaming bowl of chicken soup not only soothes the soul, it can help break up congestion, keep mucous membranes moist, and help you stay hydrated, too.
  • Carrots, squash, and sweet potatoes: These orange vegetables are rich in vitamin A, which helps keep your immune system working.
  • Yogurt: Yogurt contains healthy bacteria called probiotics. Probiotics may shorten the duration of your cold and lessen the severity of your symptoms. To keep the carbs under control, choose plain yogurt or light-style yogurt rather than fruited yogurt.
  • Pudding, gelatin, custard, applesauce, ice cream: These soft foods may be more appealing if you have no appetite. Yes, they contain carbs, but if you’re not eating much of anything else, it’s OK. Otherwise, look for sugar-free or no sugar added/reduced carbohydrate versions.

Keep taking your diabetes medicines

You might think that if you’re not eating much (or at all), you should stop taking your diabetes medicines, such as diabetes pills, insulin, or other types of injectable medicine. The reality is that you need your medicines to help manage your blood sugars. And you might need even more medicine if your blood sugars are consistently running high. Remember that your blood sugars tend to go up when you’re ill or under stress; having a cold is no exception.

If you’re unable to eat and are worried about low blood sugars, check your blood sugars often and talk with your doctor about any necessary changes in your medicines. Be sure to have treatment for low blood sugars handy, such as juice, regular soda, or glucose tabs. Don’t adjust your diabetes medicines without first checking with your provider, unless you have a sick-day plan that outlines how to adjust them.

Know when to call your provider

Colds are no fun, but they eventually tend to run their course. However, it’s important to pay attention to signs and symptoms that could signal a potential emergency. The American Diabetes Association recommends calling your provider or seeking urgent medical care if any of the following occur:

  • Blood sugars that keep rising despite taking your medication
  • Moderate to large ketones in your urine
  • Nausea, vomiting, or stomach pain
  • Thirst or dry mouth
  • Frequent urination
  • Drowsiness
  • Difficulty breathing 
  • Fruity smell to your breath
  • Confusion

If you don’t have a sick-day plan already, talk to your provider or diabetes educator about one (once you feel better). A sick-day plan includes such steps as how often to check your blood sugar, how to adjust your diabetes medicine (if needed), what over-the-counter medicines are safe to take, and when to call your provider.

Want to learn more about diabetes and sick days? Read “Diabetes Sick-Day Management” and “Planning Ahead for Sick Days With Diabetes.”

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES on social media

A Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at Good Measures, LLC, where she is a CDE manager for a virtual diabetes program. Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition & Meal Planning, a co-author of 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet, and has written for  publications including Diabetes Self-Management, Diabetes Spectrum, Clinical Diabetes, the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation’s newsletter, DiabeticConnect.com, and CDiabetes.com

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