Managing diabetes during the COVID-19 pandemic

How does Type 2 diabetes affect your COVID-19 risk?

COVID-19 is a disease that affects different people differently – and while some people may be relatively unaffected, there are risk factors that can cause an overwhelming inflammatory response within your body. One of those is Type 2 diabetes.

‘In my experience, of all the people with Type 2 diabetes who have presented to the hospital with signs and symptoms of COVID-19, we’ve had to admit a significant number of them to the intensive care unit,’ says Dr Elmo Pretorius, an endocrinologist at Mediclinic Vergelegen.

‘Coronavirus disease is a systemic disease,’ he says. ‘This means it is your body’s reaction to the disease that is dangerous. And if you have an underlying condition that compromises your immunity, such as diabetes, the effects of COVID-19 are far worse.’

Type 2 diabetes causes elevated blood sugar levels in the body, which in turn compromises the immune system’s response to infections. Diabetes results in immune dysregulation in the body. ‘Why? We don’t know for sure, but we do know that patients with diabetes suffer from significantly impaired immunity,’ says Dr Pretorius. ‘This makes them more prone to infections – in the lungs, skin, bladder.’

People with diabetes usually have heart health issues too and are often obese. These problems further reduce the body’s ability to fight off infection by hampering effective ventilation of the lungs and optimal distribution of oxygenated blood through the body. ‘This is all emerging evidence and we don’t have all the answers yet,’ he explains. ‘The link between COVID-19 and diabetes is still being explored, and there may not be one cause, but a variety of many contributing factors.’

So, what can you do to manage your COVID-19 infection risk if you have diabetes? Diabetes in itself won’t escalate your risk of catching the virus, says Dr Pretorius – but precautionary measures are more important because if you’re exposed to SARS-CoV-2, your risk of developing severe disease is higher.

1)    Prevention is paramount

·      Perform frequent handwashing, as you may have touched a contaminated surface unknowingly. Watch this video about how to practise good hand hygiene: https://youtu.be/izf5i5lFJaA

·      Wear a cloth face mask when in public. Watch this video about how to wear a face mask: https://youtu.be/4A673QsBGMg

·      Practise good respiratory hygiene by coughing or sneezing into a tissue – then immediately dispose of the tissue and wash your hands.

·      Maintain a physical distance of at least 1.5m, especially with people who have respiratory symptoms.

2)    Know the symptoms of COVID-19 and monitor yourself for these symptoms

Mediclinic’s online screening portal assesses your symptoms and exposures, helping you understand whether you should be tested or present to hospital. It will also recommend appropriate courses of action, depending on your level of risk.

3)    Look after  yourself

Ensure that you’re eating a balanced, nutritious diet and diligently monitor and maintain your blood glucose.

4)    Don’t neglect your chronic treatment follow-ups and doctors’ visits

Nervousness over COVID-19 is understandable, but delays in assessment or treatment could compromise your health. Telehealth is an emerging trend that helps to bridge the gap.

Speak to your doctor about virtual consultations, either over the phone or online. These will help keep you connected to your doctor and give them the access they need to regularly monitor how you’re managing the condition.

Mediclinic has implemented a number of measures to ensure the safety of our patients, staff and doctors. These measures are all aimed at lowering the risk of infection in our hospitals.

5)    Continue to exercise, provided you’re asymptomatic

Exercise reduces blood pressure and improves cholesterol – both good news for those with Type 2 diabetes. It also makes muscles more sensitive to insulin, helping the body manage glucose better. In short: for people with diabetes, exercise is essential.

Working out at home has never been easier, with a range of virtual training classes available online. If you’re heading outdoors for a walk, run or cycle, always adhere to national government social distancing restrictions and guidelines to reduce your risk of infection and the chances of transmitting COVID-19.

6)    If diagnosed as COVID-19 positive, ensure that you monitor your symptoms and sugar levels

If you find you’re struggling to control your blood glucose or your symptoms worsen, contact your doctor for advice sooner rather than later. If you feel you may need to visit a hospital for treatment, complete our online Should I Go To Hospital assessment for appropriate recommendations.

7)    Know your diabetic status

We all need to know if we have insulin resistance, prediabetes, or if we’re at risk of developing diabetes. Catching Type 2 diabetes early is crucial in order to manage it effectively. The later in life you’re diagnosed, the more difficult it may be to treat, as the disease damages the pancreas and other organs over time.

Dr Pretorius says many patients are presenting to hospital, worried they may have been exposed to COVID-19, and finding out they have been living with diabetes.

‘Most patients who are diagnosed with diabetes have had the condition for many years without knowing it,’ he says. ‘This means you could be at risk right now. Speak to your doctor about being tested for diabetes or prediabetes, especially if you’re unsure about symptoms.’