Research Suggests COVID-19 Triggers Diabetes in Kids—Here's What Parents Need to Know

Hospitals have seen the number of children with diabetes jump during the pandemic. Now a new study spotlights a link between COVID-19 and the disease. What's really happening?

An image of a young boy using glucose meter.
Photo: Getty Images.

More children have been diagnosed with diabetes in recent years. But the pandemic has brought a fresh concern that's alarming some doctors and researchers: The possibility that COVID-19 infection could trigger new cases of the disease.

Indeed, a study from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), released in January 2022, describes a possible link. People under 18 years old diagnosed with COVID-19 "were more likely to receive a new diabetes diagnosis more than 30 days after infection than were those without COVID-19 and those with prepandemic acute respiratory infections," according to the report. "Non–SARS-CoV-2 respiratory infection was not associated with an increased risk for diabetes." The rise in youth who presented with diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA)—a serious complication that involves very high blood sugar and can be life-threatening—was equally large and significant.

Cross-referencing reports from two major medical databases, researchers found that the incidence of diabetes was between 31 and 166 percent higher in the children who had gone through COVID-19. That's definitely alarming for parents everywhere.

Additional studies have also pointed to a possible connection between COVID-19 and diabetes. In one children's hospital in Los Angeles, new cases of type 2 diabetes increased from 44 in 2018 (pre-pandemic) to 82 in 2020 (the height of the pandemic), according to research published in 2021 in the journal Diabetes Care. And the children with new cases in 2020 were also sicker, as more presented with DKA. Some of the children had antibodies in their blood suggesting they'd been exposed to COVID-19.

Another study of five centers in the United Kingdom, which was completed between March and June 2020, found an 80 percent increase in the number of kids with new type 1 diabetes, as well as a rise in DKA.

This uptick is also a concern with adults. In fact, the new emergence of diabetes has happened frequently enough that an international group of researchers started a registry of patients with COVID-19-related diabetes. They say the coronavirus has "a potential diabetogenic effect," and note that it bears further investigation.

How Definite Is the Link Between COVID-19 and Diabetes?

"The link between COVID-19 and diabetes is still being investigated," says Cynthia E. Muñoz, Ph.D., immediate past president of health care and education for the American Diabetes Association (ADA). While some hospitals have seen a jump in new cases, others have not. Like much of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still many aspects that remain unclear. To find out more, the ADA continues to conduct research concerning its association with diabetes.

One of those researchers has found evidence that the virus damages cells in the pancreas. Senta Georgia, Ph.D., principal investigator for the Center for Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, has observed in research that COVID-19 injures beta cells, the cells in the pancreas that produce the hormone insulin.

If beta cells aren't functioning well and can't produce enough (or any) insulin, glucose can't move from the bloodstream into cells. That can trigger diabetes. Whether those cells eventually recover from the injury inflicted by COVID-19 or the damage is long-term is still unknown, says Dr. Georgia.

It's important to note it's been thought other viruses like mumps may trigger type 1 diabetes too by damaging those same beta cells. Those people are believed to be "genetically predisposed" to developing the condition.

The CDC is also exploring the connection between COVID-19 and diabetes. "The mechanism of how SARS-CoV-2 might lead to incident diabetes is likely complex," researchers admitted. They noted that it remained unclear as to what caused the increase and whether the diabetes would prove to be transient or chronic. "Monitoring for long-term consequences, including signs of new diabetes, following SARS-CoV-2 infection is important in this age group."

Still, critics of the CDC study have pushed back, suggesting that the findings need to be scrutinized at length, with more attention paid to possible existing causes of the disease. CDC researchers said they knew that the study had limitations, and acknowledged that the reason for the uptick in diabetes could be related to anything from COVID-19's attack on pancreatic cells or "stress hyperglycemia" to pandemic-related weight gain or health care disparities among racial/ethnic minority groups.

Need-to-Know Signs of Diabetes

There are already many fears surrounding COVID-19, and this isn't meant to add one more to the list. But it's important to know the red-flag symptoms of diabetes.

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes affect children, and rates of both have been on the rise in recent years. Type 1 diabetes, usually diagnosed in childhood, is an autoimmune condition that occurs when the body can't make insulin or makes very little. Type 2 diabetes is more common in adults, but children are increasingly being diagnosed. It happens when the pancreas doesn't make enough insulin or the body becomes resistant to it. In both cases, glucose can't properly get out of the blood and into the cells to provide energy.

Type 1 and type 2 diabetes share many of the same symptoms, which can be mild or severe. Those to look out for include:

  • Frequent urination
  • Increased thirst and drinking
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Weight loss

These symptoms are sometimes mistaken for illnesses such as the flu, says Dr. Muñoz. If they persist, ask your doctor to screen your child for diabetes. In the meantime, follow the usual COVID-19 prevention strategies: wash your hands, use masks where indicated, and avoid crowded indoor areas.

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