Diabetes and the Flu

You've never gotten an influenza (flu) shot before, and you haven't gotten the flu. What's the big deal about getting a flu shot now that you have diabetes?

Actually, there are lots of good reasons for diabetics to get a flu shot.

Diabetes and the Flu: Why You Need a Flu Shot

First of all, people with diabetes are more likely than those without the condition to have an impaired immune system. This has been known to be true about type 1 diabetes for a long time, but more recent research suggests that people with type 2 diabetes have problems with their immune systems, too. This means that you're more susceptible to getting infections like colds and the flu. And when you develop a virus, you're more likely to suffer complications, such as pneumonia.

Not only are diabetics more likely to suffer serious infections following the flu, they have a harder time recovering from illnesses. While someone without diabetes may miss a day or two of work with the flu, a diabetic may be sick for weeks— and could even be hospitalized. In fact, according to the American Diabetes Association, people with diabetes are about three times more likely to die from flu and pneumonia than those who don't have diabetes. 

Flu and its complications can also make it hard for you to keep your blood sugar under control. Infections can raise blood sugar levels, and feeling unwell and taking your diabetes medications but not eating enough can cause your blood sugar to drop. It's not uncommon for a diabetic with the flu to have blood glucose readings that spiral up—and then crash down—all in a matter of hours.

How the Flu Shot Works

So how does the flu shot work? This vaccine contains a very small amount of inactivated (killed) flu viruses. When you get an injection of the vaccine, your body responds by developing antibodies against the viruses, so that when the flu comes along, you have antibodies to fight against it and keep you from becoming ill.

Flu shots aren't perfect, though. The vaccine is “targeted,” meaning that it's designed to work against a specific virus. Each year the vaccine is formulated with three types of flu bugs that scientists think are most likely to be present throughout the country that year. But there are many strains of flu, and every now and then, the scientists' predictions are wrong. So your flu shot won't protect you against a strain of flu that's not included in the vaccine.

Another problem is that influenza bugs are sneaky. They morph easily into a different form of flu. So the flu bugs that are present in your area several months after the flu shot is developed may be similar, but not exactly like the bugs the vaccine was developed to protect against.

Still, research shows that people with chronic illnesses like diabetes are better off getting a flu shot than not getting one. Flu shots are considered to be about 70-90 percent effective in protecting you against the flu. And research shows that the vaccination is associated with a greatly reduced risk of developing complications from the flu.

Still have questions? Here are some frequently asked questions:

Q. When should I get the flu shot?

A. Influenza starts rearing its ugly head as early as October. Since it takes about two weeks to develop sufficient antibodies against the flu, you should consider a shot anytime after mid September. 

Q. Why do I have to get a flu shot each year?

A. Flu shots are only protective for about six months. So if you get a flu shot in October of this year, it won't protect you against the flu the following year. Also, the flu vaccine changes from year to year, according to the strains of flu viruses predicted to be present that particular year.

Q. There are lots of different kinds of flu vaccines—nasal spray, high dose, intradermal. How do I know which type of vaccine is right for me?

A. Generally speaking, the nasal spray vaccine is intended for people between ages 2 and 49 who don't have chronic illnesses like diabetes and asthma. So this isn't your best bet. And high dose flu vaccine is intended for those who are 65 years of age and older. Because those who are older don't have as great of an antibody response to a flu vaccine, the high dose vaccine contains an extra amount of antigen in order to create a stronger immune response. The intradermal flu vaccine is for those between 18 and 64 years old. It is injected into your skin rather than into the muscle. It can be administered using a smaller needle, so it's helpful for those who are afraid of needles.

The best thing to do when considering which flu vaccine to get is to talk to your health care provider. Make sure that he or she knows about your diabetes and any other health conditions you have, as well as any medications you're taking.

Q. Can I get the flu from a flu shot?

A. Some people experience side effects after getting the shot, such as headache, muscle aches, and fatigue. Because of this, they may think that they have the flu. But the flu virus that is in the shot is inactivated, or killed. This means that it's unable to cause the flu.

Q. Can serious problems occur with a flu shot?

A. Most commonly, people may experience redness, pain, or itching at the flu shot injection site. And people may get minor side effects, such as a headache, muscle aches or fatigue. Very rarely, an allergy or severe reaction may occur as a result of getting a flu shot, especially if you have a history of allergy or reaction to a flu shot in the past or to any of the components of the flu vaccine, including eggs. The person who will be administering the shot will review your medical history with you prior to giving you the shot, which will minimize your chances of having a serious problem.