Get Ready for Winter: Staying Healthy With Diabetes

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Get Ready for Winter: Staying Healthy With Diabetes

The snow and wind may be blowing, days may be dark and short, but no matter the weather or temperature, it’s important to take care of yourself during the long winter months when it’s so tempting to burrow under the blankets and reach for carb-laden comfort foods.

If you have diabetes, go ahead and enjoy the frosty air — but keep reading to learn what you can do to stay as healthy as possible.

Stay up on your vaccinations.

Two of the most important vaccines to get (if you haven’t already) are your flu shot and your COVID-19 vaccines (including boosters). People with diabetes, even if it’s well-managed, have a higher risk of developing serious flu complications that can result in hospitalization and sometimes even death, says the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Having the flu can also make it a lot harder to manage your blood sugars and can put you at risk for DKA (diabetic ketoacidosis) and HHNS (hyperosmolar hyperglycemic nonketotic syndrome), two conditions that can land you in the hospital.

When it comes to COVID-19, people who have diabetes are more likely to develop serious complications, especially if they have heart disease or other complications. While well-managed diabetes lowers the risk of becoming seriously ill with COVID-19, it’s still important to stay on top of your COVID-19 boosters, especially if you are age 65 and older. And keep in mind that becoming ill with the flu, COVID-19, or any illness when you have diabetes not only can worsen your diabetes control, but it can also lead to other problems, such as loss of muscle mass and strength and a risk of falling, especially if you are laid up in bed for a while.

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Brush up your sick-day plan.

In case you do get sick over the winter, make sure you have a sick-day plan – and a sick-day kit to help you feel better, sooner. A sick-day plan should be developed with your health care provider or diabetes educator since it needs to be tailored to you. Typically, though, sick-day plans give you instructions on what to do if you become ill. It should address:

  • How often to check your blood sugar
  • How to adjust your insulin or diabetes pills, if you take them
  • If and when to check for ketones
  • Which over-the-counter medicines you can use
  • What foods and beverages to consume when you’re ill
  • When to call your provider or seek immediate medical attention

Once you have your plan in place, write it down, and add your provider’s phone number, a list of your medications, and your insurance information, advises the American Diabetes Association.

In addition to your sick-day plan, create a sick-day kit. The last thing you want to do is forage for test strips, batteries, or cold medicine when you’re not feeling well. Things to keep in your kit might include:

Food and beverages to keep on hand may include:

  • Soups and plain broth
  • Juice, regular (not diet) soda, or regular sports drinks
  • Sugar-free beverages
  • Regular gelatin or popsicles
  • Applesauce
  • Pudding or custard

Take care of your feet.

Foot care is important all year round but pay particular attention when it’s cold outside. That’s because cold temps and dry air can be especially hard on your feet. Dry, cracked skin can lead to serious foot issues, especially if you have poor circulation in your legs.

  • Keep your feet warm and dry. Invest in shoes, boots, and socks that will protect your feet from moisture (wet feet can cause bacteria and fungus issues), and if your feet do get wet, change into dry socks and shoes right away.
  • Keep your feet away from direct heat, such as fires in the fireplace, space heaters, or heating pads to avoid dryness and burned skin, especially if you have neuropathy.
  • Keep your feet clean and moisturize them daily. Don’t put moisturizer between the toes, however.
  • Check your feet every day for sores, blisters, cuts, cracks, swelling, or redness. Call your provider or podiatrist if you have any of these issues and they aren’t improving after a day or two.

Protect your diabetes medicines and supplies.

If you take insulin or a non-insulin injectable, keep what you are using at room temperature and any unopened vials or pens in the refrigerator. Don’t leave your medicine in the car or any place where it’s cold, since it could freeze. Cold weather can also damage meters and continuous glucose monitors, as well.

If you’re headed outdoors in cold weather, keep your insulin, non-insulin injectable, insulin pump or CGM, and test strips close to your skin or in an insulated container to prevent freezing. It’s also a good idea to carry low blood sugar treatments that won’t freeze, as well. For example, instead of juice or glucose gel, use glucose tablets or non-chocolate candy, such as gumdrops or jellybeans.

Eat healthy foods.

This is good advice for any time of the year, but it’s not unusual to reach for starchy, fattier foods in the cold weather. Mashed potatoes, hearty stews, and casseroles are examples of cold-weather comfort foods. It’s OK to enjoy them but aim for balance to help keep your blood sugars and weight at a healthy range. Here’s how:

  • Include low-carb vegetables at lunch and dinner or start the meal off with a salad.
  • Make a point to have a protein food at every meal, such as eggs, tofu, plain Greek yogurt, poultry, seafood, or lean meat.
  • Choose whole-grain, unrefined carbs. That means whole-grain bread and other whole-grain foods, such as brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, farro, and barley.
  • Swap out pasta with spaghetti squash, spiralized zucchini “noodles,” or a lower-carb pasta. Look for lower-carb pastas that are made with beans, chickpeas or lentils, or vegetables, such as hearts of palm.
  • Go easy with portions — try using a smaller plate, for example, or fill half of your dinner plate with vegetables.
  • Be mindful of beverages: pumpkin spice lattes, eggnog, and hot chocolate topped with whipped cream are tempting but loaded with calories and carbs. Try cinnamon in your coffee, sip on a spiced or herbal tea, or make your own hot chocolate or eggnog with a lower-carb plant-based milk, such as unsweetened almond, soy, oat, or coconut milk.

Want to learn more about managing diabetes in the winter? Read “Diabetes Winter Tips,” “Winter Exercise Ideas,” and “How Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Can Affect 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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