Man Flu: Men Complain When They're Sick Because They Are Weaker Than Women, Science Confirms

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1929: An unconscious man lying on a sofa, tended by two of his friends in the play "Out For The Count." Sasha/Getty Images

There is the flu—"a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses," as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines it—and then there is the "man flu," which according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "a minor ailment as experienced by a man who is regarded as exaggerating the severity of the symptoms."

But what does science have to say about the matter? Is the flu actually worse for men than it is for everyone else? A new review in the Christmas edition of The BMJ sought to answer once and for all, "whether men are wimps or just immunologically inferior."

Intrepid author Dr. Kyle Sue, a man "tired of being accused of over-reacting," searched through the considerable volume of relevant studies to discover not just whether men suffered worse symptoms than women, but whether the disparity could have an evolutionary basis.

Sue, a clinical assistant professor in family medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, 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's fewer immune markers that are found in these men when they have the flu," Sue told Newsweek. 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 estrogen level, the better they do."

Future research, according to Sue, may determine whether men with lower testosterone levels—but stronger immune responses—make less appealing romantic candidates than high-testosterone men of delicate constitution. "In other words," Sue wrote in his review, "can the blame for man flu be shifted to the people who select these men as sexual partners rather than the men themselves?"

The language in the Christmas issue of The BMJ is traditionally tongue-in-cheek, but the science is held to the same rigorous standards it would be any other time of the year. "Man flu" is a pervasive enough descriptor to merit inclusion in the dictionary, yet no analysis of this kind had ever been conducted to determine whether it was warranted. As Sue noted in his review, dismissing a medical phenomenon that potentially affects half the world's population as "exaggerated" without first examining the evidence could result in insufficient care and treatment for those affected.

He was referring to men, but history has already shown us that outcome is within the bounds of possibility. Women suffered thousands of years of being diagnosed with "hysteria," a female-only condition of which the symptoms were, essentially, expressing emotions and inconveniencing those around them with said emotions. To this day, as outlets like the Atlantic have reported, women receive grossly inadequate medical care because doctors take their complaints of pain less seriously than men's.

Of course, the equivalence between the two conditions extends only so far. The treatments for women with hysteria included—depending on the exact moment in history—having more sex, having no sex, fumigating their vaginas, isolation, electroconvulsive shocks and exorcism. Treatments for men with man flu usually includes fluids and plenty of rest.

As is usually the case in science, the evidence Sue reviewed isn't definitive. Any number of factors could have skewed the existing studies, he told Newsweek, like the fact that more men smoke than women, which compromises their baseline level of health, or that men might be less willing to see a doctor until their symptoms have already become life-threatening.

Clearly further research is needed to get to the bottom of things. Perhaps, Sue suggests, a controlled trial in which two groups of men are infected with the flu, whereupon members of one group are assigned nurturing caregivers to tend to all their needs and the others are, in the name of science, left to fend for themselves.

Man Flu: Men Complain When They're Sick Because They Are Weaker Than Women, Science Confirms | Tech & Science