Why You Need a Flu Shot if You Have Diabetes

Patient Expert

If you’re like more than half of all Americans, you don’t get an annual flu shot. But that could be a deadly mistake for someone who has diabetes.

A large population-based study of 124,503 adults in the UK who have Type 2 diabetes found that those who got a flu vaccine had a 24 percent lower death rate than those who didn’t get vaccinated. Flu vaccinations also resulted in a 30 percent reduction in hospital admissions for stroke and a 22 percent reduction in heart failure admissions.

Researchers from Imperial College London used one of the world’s largest computerized medical databases of primary care records, the Clinical Practice Research Datalink in England. They studied the results for seven flu seasons between 2003 and 2010 and reported their findings in CMAJ, the Canadian Medical Association journal, in July 2016.

Chronic conditions can lead to flu deaths

“Most flu deaths every year occur in people with pre-existing health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes,” said the study’s lead author, Eszter Vamos, M.D., Ph.D. “Currently more than one-third of people with diabetes do not receive their flu vaccine year-by-year in England.”

An important difference between the people there and in the United States is that an even smaller proportion of Americans get an annual flu vaccination. Only about 44 percent of adults and 59 percent of children from six months to 17 years got vaccinated for the 2014-2015 season, the most recent one for which data are available, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The people who don’t get vaccinated for the flu offered many reasons in a RAND Corporation survey. The most common reason, given by 28 percent, is that they don’t need the flu vaccine. Another 28 percent said either that they don’t believe in flu vaccines or that they might get sick or suffer side effects.

The flu season is unpredictable

In fact, the flu causes about 200,000 Americans to be hospitalized each year, the CDC said. Anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 people die from it annually. This wide range partly is “because flu seasons are unpredictable and often fluctuate in length and severity,” according to the CDC.

Getting the flu can be serious business for most people. But it can be even worse for people with diabetes because high blood glucose levels may compromise the immune system. This can make those with diabetes even more susceptible to the flu virus. A review article titled “Immune dysfunction in patients with diabetes mellitus (DM)” also found that people with diabetes have infections more often than other people and that the course of these infections is more complicated.

Get vaccinated now

Many pharmacies are already offering walk-in opportunities to get the flu vaccine this year. The HealthMap Vaccine Finder is a comprehensive directory showing where you can get your shot close to home.

“Everyone 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine every year by the end of October, if possible,” the CDC recommended. People will still have a chance for several months after October to get vaccinated.

But those who get their flu shot now will reduce their risk of getting the flu this season. If you have diabetes, you face more serious consequences from getting the flu, so it’s especially important that you get vaccinated now.

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David Mendosa is a journalist who learned in 1994 that he has Type 2 diabetes, which he now writes about exclusively. He has written thousands of diabetes articles, two books about it, created one of the first diabetes websites, and publishes the monthly newsletter, “Diabetes Update.” His very low-carbohydrate diet, current A1C level of 5.1, and BMI of 19.8 keeps his diabetes in remission without any drugs.