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How Do Cold and Flu Meds Affect Diabetes?

Choosing cold and flu medication can be a little challenging when you have diabetes. Some medications may raise your blood sugar, while others can worsen the symptoms of related conditions, such as high blood pressure.

Do you know how to pick the safest cold and flu medications? Here are some things to consider when you have diabetes or other chronic health conditions.

A medication is not necessarily safe just because you’ve taken it in the past.

The medications you took before you were diagnosed with diabetes may no longer be safe for you. For example, pseudoephedrine – an ingredient found in many decongestants – could raise your blood pressure and blood sugar. Blood sugar spikes may be more likely to occur if you’ve been using the medication for a while but can happen at any time. Antihistamines may cause the opposite problem. Your blood sugar may drop dangerously low while you take them. A steroid medication may be prescribed to decrease swelling in your nose or throat if you have a viral infection. While the drug can help you breathe easier, it may also send your blood sugar level soaring.

“Whether you’re taking a decongestant, antihistamine, steroid or another type of medication, it’s a good idea to check your blood sugar several times throughout the day,” said Christopher P. Turner, M.D., chief medical officer for Maury Regional Medical Group. “When a particular medication does affect your blood sugar, let your doctor know so that he or she can determine whether you should stop taking it, or if your insulin or diabetes medication dosage should be temporarily changed.”

Consider the combined side effects of all medications you are taking.

The more medications you take, the more likely you’ll experience side effects. A slight increase in your blood sugar caused by one medication might be acceptable. However, combining several medications that increase blood sugar may cause your level to rise too high.

Decongestants and medications that contain caffeine can increase your blood pressure. If you already have high blood pressure, or you have glaucoma, an increase can cause problems that may threaten your health.

Continue your diabetes medication if you have a cold or the flu.

Diabetes doesn’t take a break when you are sick. In addition to taking cold and flu medication, you’ll need to continue to take your insulin or diabetes medications. Your body may still produce too much glucose (blood sugar) even if you feel too sick to eat much or feel too tired to get out of bed. The stress of being ill may also raise your blood sugar level, complicating your recovery. Since you are not following your usual routine, your doctor may recommend that you test your blood sugar more often than usual.

Cold and flu medications may contain sugar.

If a medication is flavored, it probably contains some sugar. You can quickly tell if sugar is included by taking a look at the label. If you see a zero next to the carbohydrate heading, the medication isn’t sweetened. You don’t necessarily have to avoid medications with sugar, particularly if they only include small amounts. But if you must take the medication often or you take several medications that contain sugar, you’ll soon be consuming more sugar than you may have anticipated. When possible, use sugar-free versions of medications or take medication in pill form instead of liquid.

“Those with diabetes must take extra care when choosing over-the-counter medications to treat cold and flu symptoms,” said Dr. Turner. “If you have any questions about which medication is best for your individual health, contact your physician’s office for guidance.”

An official headshot of Dr. VertreesChristopher P. Turner, M.D.,

is a board-certified specialist in internal medicine and pediatrics on the medical staff at Maury Regional Medical Center in Columbia. Dr. Turner is the chief medical officer for Maury Regional Medical Group, which serves southern Middle Tennessee with more than 20 locations and 100 providers throughout the region.


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Date Last Reviewed: September 17, 2020
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