“Man flu” actually a thing and not to be ridiculed, says science

“Man flu” refers to a common cold or flu which when occurring in men is usually presented with exaggerated symptoms and the severity of those symptoms. It has long been ridiculed in society. Science now explores if men truly suffer more when they are down with a cold.

Image Credit: Dotshock / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Dotshock / Shutterstock

This new study comes from a frustrated Canadian researcher who was “tired of being accused of overreacting” to symptoms of flu. He looked at the published studies from different journals and published his findings titled, “The science behind “man flu” in the British Medical Journal’s latest issue.

First he looked at the animal studies that have been conducted to check for the gender differences and noted that infections generally induce the release of stress hormones like corticosterones. This response to infections is greater in female mice than male mice. This means the females have suppressed symptoms of the infection compared to male mice. Further female hormone estrogen and estrogen receptors that are present more abundantly in females can reduce the levels of the influenza A virus counts. When the estrogen levels were reduced in the female animals, their propensity for the infections rose.

Human studies showed that women who were still menstruating (meaning their female hormones were at normal levels) had stronger response and immunity against rhinovirus (a virus that commonly causes colds) when compared to men of the same age. This suggests a hormonal link to colds and responses to it.

The author then looked at the number of people down with flu worldwide from the World Health Organization statistics. 2004-10 data from Hong Kong on seasonal influenza showed that adult men had a higher risk of getting admitted in hospitals. In the United States too men had a greater risk of deaths due to influenza compared to women of the same age groups. Further, women show better response to influenza vaccine compared to men. Men also tend to have more complications due to influenza and other respiratory infections than women.

The researcher Kyle Sue assistant professor of family medicine from Health Sciences Centre, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, NL, Canada, then  wrote that men are more vulnerable to respiratory infections than women. This is because their immune system is less robust. He adds that there are authors who have postulated, “if males require, for example, testosterone for aggressive behaviour and the development of male secondary sexual characteristics, selection for winning at the high-stakes game males play may override the cost of any immunosuppressive effects of the hormone.” Further they add that “males of many species are more likely to die from trauma before an infection kills them.”

The author concludes that “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.”

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