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Are diabetics more at risk from coronavirus?

GP and Lead Medical Appraiser at Bupa
01 June 2020

This article was written in line with the best available evidence and guidelines at the time of publishing. Keep up-to-date with the latest guidelines on coronavirus at gov.uk.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold, doctors, researchers and healthcare organisations across the world are working together to try and combat the disease. With new findings emerging each day, you may have heard reports recently that people with diabetes are at serious risk if they become ill with coronavirus.

Here I’ll explain what we know so far about the risks of coronavirus for people with diabetes, and how to manage the condition well during this time.

an older couple on a laptop

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition where your blood glucose (sugar) can become too high and be harmful if left untreated. This happens when your body doesn’t produce enough of the hormone insulin or doesn’t respond to it properly. In the UK, more than 3.9 million people are diagnosed with the condition. There are a number of different types of diabetes, but the two most common are known as Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

If you have Type 1 diabetes, this means your body doesn’t produce enough of a hormone called insulin. Insulin moves sugar from your blood to your cells to be stored or used as energy. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, where your body’s immune cells attack the cells of your pancreas that make insulin by mistake. You can develop Type 1 diabetes at any age, but it’s more commonly diagnosed in younger people. Around eight in every 100 people with diabetes have this type.

If you have Type 2 diabetes, your body usually produces insulin, but stops responding to it properly. Although you can develop Type 2 diabetes at any age, it’s more common if you’re older, overweight and don’t exercise. If you have Type 2 diabetes, you can often help to control your blood glucose by making positive lifestyle changes, such as eating a healthy diet and exercising. Around nine out of 10 people with diabetes in the UK have this type.

How does coronavirus affect diabetes?

The coverage of coronavirus and diabetes in the media comes after NHS England recently published data linking the two. The study found that sadly, one in three people who had died in hospital in England from coronavirus between 1 March and 11 May had diabetes.

The research found that, for people who had to go to hospital with coronavirus, the risk of dying was three and a half times greater for people with Type 1 diabetes. For those with Type 2 diabetes, it was twice as likely, compared to people without diabetes.

The research also reported that the risk of dying in hospital from coronavirus may be greater if you have either type of diabetes and also:

  • have a history of poorly controlled, high blood glucose
  • are obese (particularly with weight around your middle)
  • are over 40 years old
  • are male
  • of black, Asian or minority ethnicity
  • have existing health conditions such as heart failure and stroke
  • live in a more deprived area

What’s important to consider?

It’s important to remember that the risk of getting coronavirus is still very low. Just having diabetes in the first place does not make you any more likely to get coronavirus than anyone else. The data in this study is based on people who had to go to hospital because of their symptoms. But most people who get coronavirus will only get mild symptoms and recover well at home. What it does mean though, is if you have diabetes and your symptoms of coronavirus worsen and you have to go to hospital, you may be at greater risk of becoming seriously ill.

It’s also important to remember that the biggest risk factor for becoming seriously ill from coronavirus is your age. Although the study found that people with Type 1 diabetes are three and a half times more likely to become seriously ill if they’re in hospital with coronavirus, many Type 1 diabetics tend to be younger. And very few people with diabetes under 40 have died from coronavirus. Type 2 diabetes is much more common, especially in older people. It’s thought this is why many more people with Type 2 diabetes have sadly passed away from the virus. So, if you’re older and have diabetes, it’s even more important to follow social distancing guidelines.

The study carried out by NHS England is based on the data we have so far. As time goes on and we discover more about the effects of coronavirus, more research will be needed to confirm these findings and make sure every possibility has been considered.

Managing diabetes at home during coronavirus

If you have diabetes, the most important thing you can do is look after yourself and manage your condition well at home during the pandemic.

  • Keep your blood glucose level within your target range as best you can.
  • Make sure you have any diabetes medication, treatments, supplies and testing technology you need to hand.
  • Eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly.
  • Try to maintain a healthy weight. Use our BMI calculator to find out your ideal weight for your height. If you’re overweight, even a small amount of weight loss can help to improve your blood glucose.
  • If you have any medical appointments, speak to your GP, Diabetes Team or specialist to confirm if these are going ahead and which are essential. Some appointments may be cancelled during this time, but others – like seeing an eye or foot specialist – may be essential to prevent any problems from developing.
  • Check the condition of your feet every day and contact your GP if you spot any changes, cuts or blisters.
  • Stay at home as much as possible and only go outside for essential activities like buying food, exercise or a medical need. If you do go out, take particular care to minimise contact with people outside your household and follow social distancing guidelines.
  • If you cannot work from home and must go out for work, speak to your employer and follow strict social distancing guidelines at work.
  • Practise good hygiene and regularly wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, including when you return home.
  • If you have any concerns or questions, contact your GP or Diabetes Team for advice.

Getting support

There are extra measures in place to support people with diabetes during this time. These include:

  • virtual consultations and online appointments
  • more online education resources
  • a dedicated helpline for anyone needing help with insulin

If you have private healthcare, you can also speak to your provider to find out how they can help.

For more information and support on living with diabetes during coronavirus, visit the Diabetes UK website.

Dr Naveen Puri
GP and Lead Medical Appraiser at Bupa

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