Ask any man, and he’ll tell you “man flu” is real — insert eye roll here. But is it simply a term used to poke fun at men suspected of exaggerating symptoms associated with minor colds or illness, or is it the real deal?
One researcher says yes, man flu is real. And he believes men are actually more susceptible to illnesses than women. But if man flu is real, then you can add exhaustion to the list of symptoms — a symptom reserved specifically for his caregiver. Now let’s see what science has to say about this phenomenon.
Man flu defined
So, what exactly is man flu? It’s a condition shared by most males whereby a mild cold, such as a sniffle, is perceived to be a life-threatening illness. Standard symptoms often include a constant need for attention and an overwhelming desire for sympathy.
Okay, so man flu is obviously a label reserved for mocking men who frequently overreact to the tiniest of colds. But what if — and this is a big if — man flu is actually legit? Well, according to a Canadian researcher who was “tired of being accused of overreacting,” man flu is real.
The science behind “man flu”
Urban dictionary defines man flu as “fishing for sympathy” or “chronic exaggeration.” But according to research published in the BMJ Medical Journal, it just may be a real phenomenon. Several studies show that female mice have higher immune responses than males, which lead Dr. Kyle Sue from the University of Newfoundland in Canada to ponder whether male hormones play an important role in man flu.
Sue reviewed existing studies to see whether men are simply exaggerating their symptoms or if they are actually more susceptible to infection than women are. What he found was that certain evidence did, in fact, point in that direction. He suspected that gender difference might even have an evolutionary root. However, it’s “certainly not definitive,” he said. And, of course, many of the studies were non-human-based. Meaning they were either animal or in-vitro studies, which aren’t exactly the best sources of evidence for us human folk.
Women are just tougher than men
But, Sue also found human research suggesting that men and women may respond differently to influenza. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) advises that sex and gender should be considered in emerging infectious disease. In fact, WHO stresses that “there are biological differences between male and female immune systems at every biological level, from cell to organ to organ system to individual as a whole.” And while women aren’t immune to disease, in general, females tend to have a stronger immune response to infection than males, says WHO.
To begin with, evidence suggests that women seem to respond differently to vaccines that protect against flu, says Sue. “There are a couple of studies that show women having more local and systemic reactions to the flu shot than men,” Sue said. He added that, overall, women may be “more responsive to vaccinations than men.”
In fact, when it comes to antibodies that fight viruses and bacteria, a study from John Hopkins found that males generally become sicker than women, and have a higher risk of lung infection with certain viruses. Sue also points towards research from Hong Kong that finds adult men are more likely to be admitted to the hospital with influenza. Moreover, the rates of “influenza-associated deaths” are also higher in men compared with same-age women.
Men tend to have more flu-like symptoms
Some argue that there’s just too little evidence to suggest “man flu” truly exists. Yet, there’s certainly enough evidence to support that men may have weaker immune responses to viruses. According to Sue, “The concept of man flu, as commonly defined, is potentially unjust. Men may not be exaggerating symptoms but have weaker immune responses to viral respiratory viruses, leading to greater morbidity and mortality than seen in women.”
Another study found that adult male mice showed more symptoms of illness than females when exposed to flu-like bacteria. Males not only had more fluctuations in body temperature but also showed signs of fever and inflammation. They also took longer to recover.
Men don’t wash their hands
So, there are certainly enough studies to show that men are not faking or exaggerating their illness. Rather, they’re just the “weaker” sex, which makes them respond differently to the illness. And that difference could be down to hormones like male testosterone and female estrogen. A study on human cells, for example, found that estrogen-based compounds made it harder for a flu virus to infect estrogen samples.
On the other hand, when it comes to man flu, other things could also be at play. Research suggests that men wash their hands far less than women. And they are also less likely to see their doctors regularly.
Will man flu hit epidemic proportions?
All jokes aside, it seems like man flu could be the real deal — an illness that women may be too quick to dismiss. Either way, more research is needed. So, if you’ve been diagnosed with man flu, disregard stereotypes and get plenty of rest. If symptoms do not improve, or illness deteriorates, or you have trouble breathing, see your doctor right away!
— Katherine Marko