With the December party season now in full swing across Europe this means for many a sharp intake of more alcohol, more decadent food, and later nights with less sleep, leaving the body (regardless of gender) at greater risk of catching a cold or flu virus. Whilst it’s a certainty that a lot of people will unfortunately have to take a few days out from the festive celebrations to nurse such an infection, it’s a societal cliché that men will be the ones to complain not only the most but also the most loudly.
Man flu, ‘a minor ailment as experienced by a man who is regarded as exaggerating the severity of the symptoms’ (Oxford English Dictionary definition) has been the subject of a review in the Christmas edition of the ‘British Medical Journal’ by Dr Kyle Sue, a clinical assistant professor in family medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. Once and for all he wanted to prove ‘whether men are wimps or just immunologically inferior’.
When sifting through evidence accumulated through previous studies (some solidly scientific, others noticeably less so), he found that adult men appear to have higher rates of flu-related deaths compared to women. Some of the evidence, Sue told ‘Newsweek’, suggests this disparity could be due to men having a less robust immune response to common respiratory viruses than women do.
‘There are fewer immune markers that are found in these men when they have the flu,’ Sue commented. And this difference appeared to go hand-in-hand with male hormones. ‘It actually seems to be the case that the higher their testosterone levels, the worse that the men do. Whereas for women, the higher their oestrogen level, the better they do.’
Contrary to stereotypes, Sue also found that it was women who are the first to reduce their activities at the opening signs of a viral infection, with men stoically more likely to continue on, delaying their overall recovery time. Indeed, a not-so-scientific survey in a popular lifestyle magazine did find that men tend to take twice as long to recover from a minor respiratory illness than women.
Sue also explored whether there was an evolutionary explanation for why men might experience worse symptoms than women when it comes to viral respiratory infections. Among the theories put forward, he notes higher testosterone levels might offer upsides when it comes competing against other males that outweigh the possible negative impact on the immune system. Another option is that men developed an overall weaker immune response as a means to keep bedbound Stone Age men in their caves and hence potentially out of the way of predators, thus helping to ensure the preservation of humanity.
Whilst Sue’s review was admittedly very tongue-in-cheek (a hallmark of the Christmas edition of the BMJ), he does argue that there should be more serious and rigorous research undertaken to truly explore immuno-differences between men and women. ‘There need to be more studies, higher quality studies that control for other factors between men and women before we can definitely say that this difference in immunity exists,’ he told ‘The Guardian’ newspaper. ‘Is it that women are more resilient, that they are able to juggle more when they are ill, or is it that they don’t have as severe symptoms? (…) I think everyone should be given the benefit of the doubt when they are ill.’
In the meantime, how does Sue feel society can adapt to the fact that man flu is most likely a real phenomenon? ‘Perhaps now is the time for male-friendly spaces, equipped with enormous televisions and reclining chairs, to be set up where men can recover from the debilitating effects of man flu in safety and comfort.’
Your (male) CORDIS writer thoroughly endorses this idea!