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A dangerous new coronavirus complication was discovered – and it never goes away if you get it

Published Oct 21st, 2020 8:56AM EDT
Coronavirus Symptoms
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  • Doctors are studying an unexpected coronavirus complication that can appear a few weeks or even months after the initial COVID-19 infection.
  • Some patients develop diabetes, experiencing life-threatening symptoms that require immediate medical attention.
  • Doctors observed surprising onset of diabetes following covid infections in older patients who did not have any underlying risk factors, as well as in children who survived a novel coronavirus infection.
  • While both type 1 and type 2 diabetes can be managed with treatment, diabetes can’t be cured. Some patients will need expensive insulin therapy for the rest of their lives.

More and more reports indicate that beating the novel coronavirus illness is a lot easier said than done. Statistically speaking, the COVID-19 death rate hovers around 3% worldwide, with some degree of variance between countries. That means most people will survive the infection — but their fight with coronavirus symptoms won’t always be over even after beating the disease. Many patients experience long-term symptoms that might require medical attention. Some even go on to develop multisystem inflammatory syndromes. But now doctors think the pathogen can create the sort of complication that might never go away.

Diabetes is one of the most serious risk factors for COVID-19 complications and death, and it turns out that there may be another puzzling link between the two conditions. The novel coronavirus may be inducing diabetes in some patients “from scratch,” and that’s the sort of chronic disease that will need continuous treatment. Modern medicine can improve the management of both types of diabetes, but there’s no cure for diabetes right now. And even if living with diabetes is a lot easier than it was in the past, access to care isn’t guaranteed and insulin therapy can be very expensive.

A 28-year-old man from Mesa, Arizona developed COVID-19 symptoms in June, Reuters reports. But it wasn’t until a few weeks after his recovery that he experienced life-threatening symptoms. He felt weak, he started vomiting, and he passed out in the middle of the night. Doctors put him in the ICU after saving him from a coma and told him that he had type 1 diabetes, which could have killed him. He had no history of the illness, and doctors think it was COVID-19 that triggered it.

Mario Buelna’s stunning diabetes case isn’t an isolated event. Doctors have encountered similar cases among COVID-19 survivors, including children. “COVID could be causing diabetes from scratch,” Dr. Francesco Rubino told Reuters. Rubino is a diabetes researcher and chair of metabolic and bariatric surgery at King’s College London.

The diabetes expert is currently collecting data from other patients in an effort to explain how the virus might trigger the onset of diabetes. More than 300 doctors worldwide have applied to share cases for review, and the number could go up. “These cases are coming from every corner of the world and every continent,” Rubino said.

The onset of diabetes from COVID-19 might happen until several months after recovery. The virus might impact the body’s ability to break down sugar, and will then continue to accumulate inside the body and lead to life-threatening complications. Doctors have witnessed diabetic emergencies in patients who did not show any risk factors for the illness, like old age and weight problems.

Aside from Buelna’s case, Reuters also details the case of a 12-year-old boy who experienced fatigue symptoms this past summer after a possible asymptomatic COVID-19 infection. On July 9th, Atticus Simis’s condition worsened, and he was rushed to the hospital. Doctors told his father Arthur that the boy had dangerously high sugar levels in his system and ketones in his urine. The boy was in diabetic ketoacidosis, which could have led to a coma.

Arthur believes his son had coronavirus in the spring when he and his wife Sarah experienced symptoms. None of them were tested at the time because covid tests were in such short supply. Atticus tested negative for coronavirus in the ICU, but he wasn’t tested for antibodies that could prove he had a prior case of COVID-19.

More children like Atticus have developed type 1 diabetes. Researchers from the Imperial College in London found that cases doubled to 30 from late March to early June compared to the previous five years. Only five of the children in the study tested positive for COVID-19, but the others were not tested at all.

Separately, the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles said that the percentage of newly diagnosed type 2 patients who arrived in diabetic ketoacidosis has nearly doubled from March through August compared to the same period in 2018 and 2019. Doctors there are also investigating the links between the increased number of diabetes cases and COVID-19.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.