Can the Flu Trigger Type 1 Diabetes in Children?

Patient Expert

Every year approximately 15,000 children and teenagers are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. There are various things that can trigger the disease, one of which is the flu.

To be clear, the flu does not cause type 1 diabetes, but it can serve as a trigger for the onset of the disease in someone who is essentially “pre-programmed” to develop it. Autoimmune diseases often are just waiting for their trigger. One 2011 study in the International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology found a correlation between a specific flu virus (H1N1) and development of type 1 diabetes; another one, published in a 2012 issue of the Journal of Virology also found an association.

The theory is that while fighting off the flu virus, the immune system accidentally begins destroying the cells within the pancreas that are essential to insulin production.

Undiagnosed type 1 diabetes has become enough of an issue that organizations like have formed to keep parents better informed and more aware. And the incidence of type 1 diabetes in children under the age of five is “sky-rocketing,” according to Terri Lipman, Ph.D.,at the Philadelphia Pediatric Diabetes Registry.

While type 1 can certainly run in families with trends of autoimmune diseases, it can also develop in anyone. Nothing you do causes it (no, eating too much candy doesn’t cause it), and unless you’re testing your child each year via TrialNet and are a candidate for current research studies, there’s nothing you can do to prevent it, either.

Despite how easy it is to test for and diagnose type 1 diabetes, young people die every year because the symptoms are easily dismissed as an extended flu or even strep throat.

Here are the signs and symptoms of type 1 diabetes according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

  • Drowsiness or lethargy
  • Extreme thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Fruity odor on the breath
  • Increased appetite
  • Heavy or labored breathing
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Sudden vision changes
  • Sugar in the urine
  • Stupor or unconsciousness

The reason a person suffering from undiagnosed type 1 diabetes will definitely have several of these symptoms is because they are all caused by the same thing: ketones that are flooding the body at life-threatening levels. (Diabetes-related ketones are very different than the low-level of ketones that develop during low-carb diets.

Excessive ketones due to diabetic ketoacidosis cause extreme thirst. That leads you to drink a lot, which in turn causes you to urinate more often. The ketones also cause bad breath and vision changes. The inability to burn sugar for fuel (because of too little insulin, which causes ketones in the first place) leads to extreme lethargy, increased appetite, and weight loss.

Bottom line: Get your children vaccinated against the flu. If they get the flu anyway, and it seems like they’re not getting any better after the first week, take them to their primary care doctor or the emergency room and ask for a urine dip to check for ketones and a blood glucose test. Type 1 diabetes will be obvious in either of those very simple and quick tests.

If ignored, symptoms of type 1 diabetes will grow more severe over the course of a couple of weeks, and, if allowed to progress without treatment, can be fatal.

See more helpful articles:

This Year’s Flu and You: What You Need to Know

When Is it Too Early to Get a Flu Shot?