Teenage drinking and type 1 diabetes

What your teen with type 1 diabetes should know if they decide to drink.

As parents, we want to believe that our children will always do what we ask of them, but we quickly learn that is not the case. Especially as our kids grow older and assert their independence, what we ask of them and what they do are often in conflict. If you are a parent of a teen with type 1 diabetes, the choices they make can have serious health consequences when what they do and what you ask of them are in conflict. One common choice teens are faced with is whether or not to drink alcohol. According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, almost one-third of 9th – 12th graders report having at least one drink in the past 30 days. Again, we like to think our children will do what we ask and not drink, but how can we prepare our teens with type 1 diabetes to be safe when they decide to drink?

Bottom line: underage drinking is illegal, and underage drinking can have legal consequences if your teen is caught. For best results, you should talk to your teen about drinking before they decide to drink and when you both are calm. Having a talk after your child has come home drunk is not the best time. If you are having difficulty talking to your teen, ask a family member or friend that your teen trusts for help. Your teen’s healthcare provider is another place to turn. Their advice and guidance on diabetes care for your teen should always be followed.

If your teen decides to drink, they should understand how alcohol affects their blood sugar. Though there might be a temporary spike in blood sugar levels, drinking alcohol usually causes blood sugar to go down. Hypoglycemia (or low blood sugar) occurs because the liver kicks in and works on ridding the body of the alcohol first, and is slower to release glucose into the system causing low blood sugar. According to the Diabetes Teaching Center at the University of California, San Francisco, it takes approximately 1 – 1 ½ hours for the liver to process one drink. It’s during that processing time when people with diabetes are at risk for low blood sugar. If you have two drinks, you would be at risk for 2 – 3 hours. The more drinks you have, the length of time you are at risk for low blood sugar is longer.

An article from Diabetes UK provides additional information that parents can share with their teen to help keep them safe if they decide to drink:

  • Eat before drinking alcohol, and eat some carbohydrate-containing snacks such as a sandwich or chips while drinking.
  • Tell a trusted friend that they have diabetes and how to treat low blood sugar if it occurs.
  • Alternate alcoholic drinks with water or other sugar-free drinks to avoid dehydration.
  • Wear a diabetes ID bracelet or necklace, because low blood sugar can be mistaken for drunkenness.
  • Eat before going to bed after a night of drinking. Alcohol stays in the system for a while, so low blood sugar can occur after going to sleep. Eat something with fat and protein, such as chips with dip, cheese, nuts, etc.
  • Test frequently when drinking. If your teen vomits, the College Diabetes Network suggests that he or she should test at least once an hour for several hours while drinking non-alcoholic beverages and eating some crackers, cereal, bread, etc. If your teen is not able to keep food down and hypoglycemia occurs, they should follow their diabetes care plan to raise blood sugar. If nothing is working, someone should call 911.
  • Be aware of contraindications of pain relievers while taking diabetes medication or using a continuous glucose monitor. Acetaminophen can cause monitors to read inaccurately for several hours.

We hope our kids make the right decisions. But when they don’t, we can help them by making sure they know what to do to stay safe.

Michigan State University Extension has many other articles that address topics related to type 1 diabetes in children and teens, such as symptoms of type 1 diabetes in children

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