Dear Diabetes: Do heat, cold, and humidity affect diabetes?
I knew that many variables, such as stress, may affect blood sugar, but I was curious to find out if something as mundane as the weather could truly affect my diabetes. Did I – and others living with diabetes – need to take temperature and humidity into account?
I discovered that the answer is yes. Both humidity and extreme hot or cold temperatures may affect both your body and any diabetes-related equipment you may use. Humidity, so prevalent this summer across much of the country, may take a physical toll on anyone. Typically, the human body cools itself off via evaporation: you sweat, and your temperature drops as air wicks the moisture off your skin. When it’s really humid out, though, the air is already full of water, and sweat, unable to evaporate, doesn’t cool you as effectively. High humidity therefore increases the risk of heat exhaustion, and diabetes may add a twist. Poor glucose management may affect one’s ability to sweat in the first place, making a person living with diabetes more likely to overheat. In addition, high glucose levels may make you urinate more, so it’s especially important in hot, humid weather to stay hydrated with sugar-free beverages, and to test your blood glucose more often than normal.
Extreme temperatures may affect you in less direct ways as well: if it’s scorching or freezing outside, you may be less likely to stick with your normal exercise routine, which in turn may impact your blood sugar levels. Sunburn, another potential warm weather side effect, may actually cause inflammation, which in turn may result in increased insulin resistance. And at the opposite temperature extreme, cold fingers may make it difficult to get an adequate blood sample. Be sure to warm up your hands first – I use my armpit – and bring extra test strips just in case it takes more than one try.
As for equipment, I felt the effects of weather firsthand when my glucometer broke as I climbed a mist-shrouded mountain in China. Okay, “climbed” may be an exaggeration – it was one of the many sacred mountains in China that have steps leading all the way to the summit. But it was a two-day trip, the entire mountain was enveloped in clouds and freezing weather, I didn’t have a backup meter, and the only food available at the top was large bowls of noodles. I was so nervous about my blood sugar that I couldn’t sleep.
Heat and cold may also affect your devices, supplies, and medications. Extreme temperatures may damage insulin, so I advise not leaving it in a hot or freezing car. You may also need to warm your glucose meter before testing, since meters often give an error message if they’re too cold. The general rule of thumb in any kind of weather is to keep your supplies as close to room temperature (around 70 degrees) as possible. In the summer, this usually just means keeping them in the shade, unless it’s extremely hot out, when you’ll want to make sure everything stays inside, in a more controlled environment. If you’re outdoors in cold weather, try keeping supplies close to your body, ideally inside your coat (read how professional snowboarder Sean Busby functions in extreme cold.)
There’s no guaranteed way to avoid weather-induced equipment malfunctions, but you may be able to prevent them from becoming potential health emergencies by bringing backup supplies. When I got back from my unfortunate Chinese adventure, I adopted several new habits that I use when I know I’ll be in extreme weather:
- I review the instruction manual and information inserts for my devices and medications so that I have an idea of what might go wrong.
- I bring extra supplies as backup, including control solution for my glucometer so that I can check its accuracy.
- Last, I make sure to take extra good care of my general health: the better hydrated and comfortable I am, the easier my blood sugar management may be.
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Catherine Price is a freelance journalist and type 1 diabetic who has written for The New York Times, Slate, Popular Science, and O Magazine, among others. She blogs about diabetes at asweetlife.org. Catherine is currently working on a book about the history and science of vitamins, to be published by the Penguin Press. Price is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience