Caring for Your Diabetes When You're Sick

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Caring for Your Diabetes When You're Sick

Having a cold may not seem like such a big deal. It happens to everyone, right? However, if you have diabetes, a cold or another infection may be a bigger deal than you think.

Here's why: Being sick puts us under stress. To deal with that stress, our body releases hormones to deal with the stress, and to fight whatever's making us sick. The problem is that those hormones can also raise your blood glucose levels. So at a time when you may feel less able to handle it, it can be harder to control your blood sugar.

What to Do: Your Sick Day Back-Up Plan

Winston Churchill is credited with saying, "He who fails to plan is planning to fail." When you have diabetes, you want to plan how you'll deal with getting sick before you actually get a cold. That way, you'll avoid the pitfall of "planning to fail," and know what to do when you're not feeling your best.

Here are some ways to put together your sick day plan.

Assemble your team. Gather together a list of phone numbers, email addresses and other contact information for everyone on your diabetes care team. Of course that list should include your doctor, but make sure to also include the names of a nutritionist and diabetes educator, if you see either. Make sure to have after-hours information available, too.

Don't forget your diabetes medication. Unless your doctor tells you not to, keep taking your diabetes medication, even if you're sick to your stomach. And if you take insulin, make sure to keep taking your insulin. (Depending on your sickness, you may need to adjust your insulin levels. Make sure to check with your doctor.)

Know (and record) your numbers. No matter what kind of diabetes you have, you'll probably need to measure your blood glucose more often than usual. Your doctor should let you know how often, but it may be somewhere between every four hours and a total of four times a day. Your doctor can also let you know if you need to measure your urine ketones, which lets you know if your sickness is causing trouble for your kidneys.

And when you check your numbers, make sure to write them down. This will be helpful if you need to see your doctor or another health care provider during your illness.

Keep eating and drinking. When you're sick, you may not be able to eat your usual food. That can lead to problems with low blood sugar. Before you get sick, you may want to build up a small supply of food that's part of your sick day plan. Here are some options:

  • Juice
  • Soup, broth or bouillon
  • Saltine crackers
  • Popsicles or sherbet
  • Applesauce
  • Gelatin made with sugar
  • Soda pop made with sugar

Also, make sure you're staying hydrated. Try to drink at least 1 cup (8 oz.) of water or another kind of calorie-free, caffeine-free liquid every hour you're awake. This will help keep your glucose levels stable, and can help your body fight some kinds of infections.

Watch out for cold medicine. Some cold medications, such as decongestants, you take for short-term illnesses can raise your blood sugar. That's true even if they don't contain sugar.

Inform health care providers about your diabetes. Make sure anyone treating you knows that you have diabetes. This is especially important if you have to go to the emergency room or urgent care, or if you're otherwise seen by a health care provider who doesn't know you.

Know when to call for help. You probably don't need to call your doctor at the first sign of sniffles, but there are some times when you should reach out to get advice. Here are a few signs of danger:

  • You've been sick for a couple of days and aren't getting better
  • You have a high fever.
  • You've been vomiting or having diarrhea for more than six hours.
  • Your blood glucose levels are higher than 240 even though you've taken the proper amount of diabetes medication and/or insulin for a sick day.
  • You're having trouble breathing.
  • You can't think clearly, or are feeling more drowsy than usual.
  • You're not sure how to take care of yourself.

When you call, have your written record of your blood glucose levels ready. Also be prepared to tell your doctor what you've eaten and drunk, what's happened with your weight, and your temperature. This is all important information that will help you decide together what the best step is for you.

Put Your Health First

Taking care of yourself and your diabetes means making a commitment to plan for the unexpected. And that's why making a sick day plan is so important. Along with your other diabetes self-care, it will help you keep your eye on where you're going – to a healthier you.

Created on 06/30/2014


  • American Diabetes Association. When You're Sick.
  • National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC), U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Take Care of Your Diabetes during Special Times or Events

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