Dmytro Zinkevych/ShutterstockIf you’ve ever rolled your eyes at your husband or male family member who won’t stop moaning and groaning about a cold, you can relate to the term “man flu.” The phrase pokes fun at guys who whine about their symptoms, but research suggests they might not be exaggerating.
Kyle Sue, MD, clinical assistant professor in family medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland, says he started researching men’s and women’s responses to viruses after getting sick of being accused of complaining too much. In a (somewhat cheeky) BMJ article, he delves into the research and points out some biological differences. (Men and women alike should watch out for these six clear signs of the flu.)
For one thing, hormones could affect the body’s ability to fight disease. One mouse study found that estradiol—a type of the hormone estrogen, which is higher in women—could help kick lung immune cells into action. Another in-vitro study found that estradiol had an antiviral effect in female cell samples infected with the flu, but the hormone didn’t protect male cells the same way.
What’s more, men’s hormones could actually be working against them. Dr. Sue cites one study on cell responses to vaccines that suggests men with higher testosterone levels could suppress the immune system. Plus, another small study found men low in androgen had higher levels of anti-inflammatory proteins. (Find out how doctors avoid the flu in the first place.)
These weak immune responses might not just be about the symptoms either. American men have higher flu-related death rates than women of the same age, according to a ten-year study in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
Dr. Sue admits the evidence is far from conclusive—major studies haven’t directly linked men with worse flu symptoms—and other researchers remain skeptical, like Peter Barlow, PhD, associate professor of immunology and infection at Edinburgh Napier University. “There are a significant number of factors which can contribute to the severity of an influenza infection,” he tells The Guardian. “As the author of the article alludes, it is currently impossible to say whether there are sex-specific differences in susceptibility to influenza virus, or in the progression of the infection.”
Still, Dr. Sue says he just wants men to have some evidence that “exaggerating” their man flu symptoms is justified. “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,” he writes. Sounds like a treatment plan women might want to steal for themselves. You could also try these 10 natural cold and flu remedies that really work.