The phenomenon of “man flu” has been around for decades. But is the condition just an urban myth, or does science back it up? New research investigates.

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Do men tend to exaggerate their cold symptoms?

Man flu is defined as a “condition shared by all males wherein a common illness (usually a mild cold) is presented by the patient as life-threatening.”

Having a girlfriend seems to aggravate the disorder, according to the Urban Dictionary: “When the patient is your boyfriend, he will exhibit the standard symptoms (such as an overwhelming desire for compassion) while simultaneously rejecting any and all efforts you make to placate him.”

In fact, gender plays an important role in the development of the disease. It seems that women are not only immune to man flu, but witnessing its symptoms in the opposite sex often makes them feel exasperated.

Given the added pressures of the patriarchal notions of masculinity, women eventually lash out at men, mocking their symptoms and dismissing them as fabrication. Using their own form of sexist banter, women often refer to these men as “wimps” or “crybabies.”

But what if society has been unfair toward men with man flu all along? What if our pre-conceived notions of what it means to “take it like a man” have stood in the way of understanding the illness and assessing the scientific evidence?

New research aims to rectify this injustice. Dr. Kyle Sue, who is a clinical assistant professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada, set out to review existing studies in an effort to establish whether men are simply exaggerating their symptoms or if they are actually immunologically inferior to women.

Dr. Sue’s results have been published in the Christmas edition of the BMJ. As he writes in the new paper, “[D]eeming male viral respiratory symptoms as ‘exaggerated’ without rigorous scientific evidence, could have important implications for men, including insufficient provision of care.”

Using medical databases such as PubMed/Medline and Cochrane, Dr.Sue reviewed a range of mouse studies and epidemiological evidence.

He found that adult men are not only more likely to be admitted into the hospital with influenza, but the rates of “influenza-associated deaths” are also higher in men compared with same-age women.

Significantly, these associations were strong regardless of underlying conditions such as heart disease, cancer, chronic respiratory system disease, or renal disease.

Further studies have suggested that men are more prone to acute respiratory illnesses, as well as being “more susceptible to complications” and having a higher mortality rate.

Dr. Sue also highlighted a number of mouse studies that found that the female immune system is more active than the male one. This led researchers to believe that sex hormones might have a bearing on influenza outcomes, and in vivo studies of animals seem to support this hypothesis.

And, a study quoted by Dr. Sue showed that men with higher testosterone levels had a lower immune response to influenza vaccines, which indicates that testosterone may have an immunosuppressive role.

As Dr. Sue notes, until now, “no scientific review has examined whether the term ‘man flu’ is appropriately defined or just an ingrained pejorative term with no scientific basis.”

However, he cautions that more quality research is needed, because “it remains uncertain whether viral quantities, immune response, symptoms, and recovery time can be affected by environmental conditions.”

But, in light of the evidence, Dr. Sue concludes that the concept of man flu may be a myth — and a harmful one at that.

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.”

Dr. Kyle Sue

In other words, there’s a plethora of scientific studies out there suggesting that men are not “wimps.” Rather, they may have a weaker immune system that simply makes them respond differently to the illness.

All jokes aside, it could well be the case that our sexist views have prevented us from seeing the scientific evidence that was there all along.

Now, if we could only apply the same enlightened paradigm to women’s premenstrual syndrome and their painful menstrual cramps, the world would be a better, more gender-equal place.