In a new study from Boston Children’s Hospital, researchers found a new long-term health concern in patients hospitalized with COVID-19—an increase in high blood sugar lasting months after infection.
They found that about half of the patients admitted to the hospital for COVID-19 during the start of the pandemic had new cases of high blood sugar. These patients were not diabetic before.
In the study, the team assessed the health of 551 people admitted to the hospital in Italy from March through May 2020. A follow-up period included six months after hospital admission.
They found during admission, about 46% of the patients were found to have new high blood sugar.
While most cases resolved, about 35% of the new high blood sugar patients remained so at least six months after the infection.
Compared with patients with no signs of glucose abnormalities, the high blood sugar patients also had worse clinical concerns: longer hospitalizations, worse clinical symptoms, a higher need for oxygen, a higher need for ventilation, and more need for intensive care treatment.
The team also found that high blood sugar patients had abnormal hormonal levels. They produced too much insulin.
They also had abnormal levels of pro-insulin, a precursor of insulin, and markers of impaired islet beta-cell function. Islet beta cells make and secrete insulin.
Basically, the hormonal profile suggests that the endocrine pancreatic function is abnormal in those patients with COVID-19 and it persists long after recovery.
These patients also had severe abnormalities in the amount of inflammatory cytokines, including IL-6 and others.
Patients treated with anti-IL-6 therapy (tocilizumab), had greater improvement in blood sugar control higher compared with those who did not receive the medication.
This study is one of the first to show that COVID-19 has a direct effect on the pancreas.
It shows that the pancreas is another target of the virus affecting not only the acute phase during hospitalization but potentially also the long-term health of these patients.
The study points to the importance of evaluating pancreatic function in patients hospitalized for COVID-19—while in the hospital and over the long term.
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The study is published in Nature Metabolism. One author of the study is Paolo Fiorina, MD, Ph.D.
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