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Diabetes is a risk factor for COVID-19 and severe outcomes
Diabetes and hypertension have been the two most common comorbidities, or diseases that occur at the same time, associated with COVID-19. Early research from hospitalized patients in China, and later studies looking globally, make it clear that people already diagnosed with diabetes are at higher risk of developing acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), pneumonia, and death.
Diabetes is characterized by the dysregulation of glucose levels in the blood. High blood glucose causes the immune system to be less effective; that is, white blood cells are less efficient at clearing viral infections. Some severe COVID-19 complications, like ARDS, are also triggered by the uncontrolled release of chemical signals by the immune system, called a cytokine storm, making the pre-existing chronic inflammation common in people with diabetes even more severe.
Uncontrolled diabetes results in worse COVID-19 outcomes
Having diabetes, however, is not a black-and-white risk factor for severe COVID complications. Carefully managing diabetes helps lower risk for severe complications.A recent study has found that diabetic patients with poorly controlled glucose levels (having high blood glucose above a certain threshold) have much worse outcomes from COVID-19 than those with lower glucose levels. People with well-controlled blood glucose levels had a much lower risk for ARDS (50% decrease), kidney injury (80% decrease), heart injury (70% decrease), and death (86% decrease).
In some cases, COVID-19 causes new cases of diabetes
In rare cases, some patients with no history of diabetes developed diabetes after COVID-19 infection. The molecule on the surface of cells that the SARS-CoV-2 virus latches onto to infect lung cells can also be found on the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas and on fat cells. It is thought that infection of these organs can lead to problems producing sufficient insulin, leading to new cases of diabetes. It has been reported that pancreatitis and a subsequent need for insulin injections were more commonly found in COVID-19 patients who were male and overweight/obese, both risk factors for Type 2 diabetes.
What you can do
Protect yourself from COVID-19. Wear a well-fitting mask and stay socially distanced from others when outside the home, wash your hands thoroughly, and monitor yourself for symptoms. These are effective tools to stop the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Formulate a plan with your doctor. Scientists are currently studying how diabetes medications affect the contraction and progression of COVID-19. Evidence so far points to different medications having different effects on diabetic patients who contract COVID-19, so consult with your doctor about your own medications and whether to continue if diagnosed with COVID-19.
Adhere to your diabetes treatments. Patients with well-managed blood glucose levels are much less likely to develop severe complications from COVID-19 than patients with high blood glucose levels.
Know your risk for developing diabetes. If you are not currently diagnosed with diabetes, you may be susceptible to developing diabetes following COVID-19. Find out about the risk factors for diabetes and how your risk compares to others.