How to Treat Cold and Flu Symptoms If You Have Diabetes


People with diabetes are at higher risk of catching the cold or flu virus because their immune systems may be weaker than that of non-diabetics. To complicate matters, it can be difficult to control blood sugar levels during illness. …

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As the body tries to fight disease, hormones are released that cause blood sugar levels to rise and prevent insulin from lowering blood glucose levels, making diabetes more difficult to control . How you manage your diabetes when you are sick is an important part of managing your overall condition.

Medicines to treat cold and flu symptoms in diabetics.

One of the most frequently asked questions is: What can people with diabetes take without a prescription if they get sick? This can be confusing because there are many brands of cold and flu medicine. You can buy single symptom medications that only treat a cough or a stuffy nose. Or you can buy a product that helps you with multiple symptoms at once.

The trick is knowing what ingredients are in the medications you buy and how they will affect your diabetes. Label ingredients fall into two categories: inactive and active. Inactive ingredients have no medicinal value. These are generally fillers, flavors, colors, and substances that help add consistency. The active ingredients are drugs that actually treat the symptoms.

Learn about the ingredients in your typical OTC medications and how they can affect your diabetes:

Inactive ingredients that can affect diabetes

Alcohol or sugar are not drug ingredients that can be found in the cold and flu medicines you take. These may appear in the "inactive ingredients" section of the label. Both alcohol and sugar affect blood glucose levels . This can cause blood sugar levels to rise.

Active ingredients that can affect diabetes

Pain Relievers and Pain Relievers: Acetaminophen, which can be used for mild pain and fever associated with colds and flu.

  • Acetaminophen can be toxic to the liver and kidneys. People with diabetes who also have kidney complications should consult their doctor before using acetaminophen.
  • NSAIDs : (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are used to treat aches, pains, and fever associated with colds and flu.
  • Ibuprofen should be used with caution in people with liver and kidney problems. It also increases the hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) effect of insulin and oral diabetes medications when used in high doses.
  • Naproxen should not be used by people with severe cardiovascular disease or kidney or liver problems. It can also increase the risk of hypoglycemia with insulin and oral diabetes medications when used in high doses.

Cough medicine

  • Dextromethorphan is found in many cough medicines and is safe for people with diabetes at recommended doses.
  • Guafenesin is an ingredient that loosens mucus and makes it easier to pass mucus. There are no warnings about guaifenesin and diabetes.
  • Decongestants
  • Epinephrine, phenylephrine, and pseudoephedrine are commonly found in nasal sprays , as well as some oral cold medications. They work by drying the secretions in the nasal passages. They may be able to reduce the effects of insulin or oral diabetes medications . They can also raise blood pressure and should be used with caution in people with high blood pressure.
  • Phenylpropanolamine (PPA) is a decongestant that the FDA has withdrawn since 2005 due to an increased risk of stroke.


  • Brompheniramine, chlorpheniramine, and doxylamine are used in combination with other active ingredients. These antihistamines do not directly affect diabetes, but older adults may be more susceptible to side effects . Diphenhydramine is used alone (sold as Benedryl) or in combination with other medications. In some people, this can cause a drop in blood pressure .
  • Loratadine is a second generation antihistamine that was recently withdrawn. It does not induce the sedation associated with older antihistamines. This does not seem to cause problems for people with diabetes.

Get the word of drug information

Traveling down the cold and flu aisle at your pharmacy can be challenging due to the different brands and combinations of medications available. Remember, these medications will not cure colds or the flu; they only relieve symptoms temporarily.

The best way to prevent complications or side effects from taking medications is to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about which of these medications is right for you.

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