The Symptoms Of Type 1 Diabetes Can Mimic Other Viruses — Including COVID-19

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
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I was exhausted, emaciated, depressed, and was insatiably hungry and thirsty. Even the smallest of tasks, like getting in and out of my car or walking to the mailbox, took immense effort. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me or what I was doing wrong. After all, I ate healthy, I exercised almost every day, and I didn’t smoke. One afternoon, I was particularly tired and breathless, unable to stay awake. My husband rushed me to the emergency room. I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

On that day, my world was turned upside down and inside out. Type 1 diabetes is a chronic, autoimmune disease that can be managed but currently has no cure. Its symptoms can mimic other health conditions, like viruses, including COVID-19. Because of this, parents need to be particularly diligent this winter sick season. They need to know the symptoms of type 1 diabetes and if concerned, insist that their sick child be tested.

Type 1 Diabetes Defined

The CDC shares that type 1 diabetes is “thought to be caused by an autoimmune reaction (the body attacks itself by mistake) that destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin, called beta cells.” Insulin is a life-sustaining hormone “that helps blood sugar enter the cells in your body where it can be used for energy.” When there isn’t enough or any insulin available, “blood sugar can’t get into the cells and builds up in the bloodstream.” If left undiagnosed and untreated, this can be damaging, even deadly.

Type 1 diabetes used to be called juvenile diabetes; however, a person of any age can be diagnosed. There are several types of diabetes, including type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes. Type 1 diabetics make up about 5-10% of the diabetes population.

The Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes

The Mayo Clinic lists the symptoms of type 1 diabetes as “increased thirst, frequent urination, bed-wetting […], extreme hunger, unintended weight loss, irritability and other mood changes, fatigue and weakness, blurred vision.” A normal fasting blood sugar level is between 70 and 100 milligrams per deciliter. To put this into perspective, my blood sugar at diagnosis was 700 mg/dl. Yes, that’s seven times the norm.

In the case of five-year-old Kycie Terry, she was misdiagnosed by her pediatrician with strep throat based on the white patches on her throat. However, those patches turned out to be thrush from high blood sugars. When Kycie’s blood sugar was finally tested, the result was 1000, ten times the norm. Eventually, Kycie passed away from complications of undiagnosed type 1 diabetes.

Who Is Diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes?

A person of any age can be diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, though the CDC states it’s more common in children, teens, and young adults. The American Diabetes Association shares that “nearly 1.6 million Americans have type 1 diabetes, including about 187,000 children and adolescents.”

The onset of type 1 diabetes can be swift, according to the World Health Organization. Parents shouldn’t take a wait-and-see approach. If suspected, parents should know that type 1 diabetes is a medical emergency.

What Causes Type 1 Diabetes?


The CDC shares that type 1 diabetes can be genetic, though having the genetic traits doesn’t mean a person will be diagnosed. There are triggers thought to be causes for some patients, including environmental, “such as a virus.” Type 1 diabetes is not caused by dietary or lifestyle habits.

Parents should be mindful that according the the National Center for Biotechnology Information shared, “the massive spread of the infection [COVID-19] arouses concerns about the heavy health consequences we may deal with in the future, including virus-induced diseases.” (In the following, T1DM refers to type 1 diabetes.) Additionally, “Given that T1DM pathogenesis has already been related to coronavirus respiratory infections, it is reasonable to suppose that an increasing incidence of T1DM may be triggered by this pandemic, with a worrisome T1DM outbreak in COVID-19 patients for the next months/years.”

How Type 1 Diabetes is Treated

Type 1 diabetics need insulin in order to live. Some of us use insulin pumps, while others use insulin pens or inject insulin from a vial using a syringe. We also test our blood sugar using a glucose meter or rely on a continuous glucose monitoring device that attaches to our bodies. We have to calculate the carbohydrate grams we consume and “cover” those grams with insulin.

Type 1 requires careful medical monitoring by a qualified physician, usually an endocrinologist. Patients have labs drawn several times a year, in addition to medical appointments, to check for eye, kidney, heart, skin, nerve, foot, and other complications. A registered dietitian can help with meal planning. Diabetes treatment is very expensive, causing some diabetics to dangerously ration their insulin and skip necessary medical appointments.

Why COVID-19 Makes Type 1 Diabetes More Complicated

COVID-19’s symptoms mimic not only symptoms of other viruses, but also symptoms of undiagnosed and untreated type 1 diabetes. COVID-19, according to the CDC, can cause fatigue, a headache, and nausea and vomiting, as can type 1 diabetes. Additionally, COVID-19 can present more severe symptoms, like new confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, and trouble breathing, similar to a person experiencing diabetic ketoacidosis.

This is not the time for parents to play a guessing-game with their child’s health, take to the Internet to get strangers’ opinions, or take a “wait and see in the morning” approach. A blood sugar check is quick, inexpensive, and straightforward. Unfortunately, many type 1 diabetics have died from a lack of appropriate diagnosis, instead dismissed as having “just a virus” by their doctor. Of course, COVID-19 isn’t “just a virus” either. It is a global health crisis and pandemic.

Parents need to know the symptoms of type 1 diabetes and keep an eye on their kids, especially now with COVID-19 and the winter sick season quickly approaching. Type 1 can strike at any time and in a person of any age. The onset of the disease is a medical emergency and needs immediate medical treatment.

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