“Man Flu” Is Now Backed by Science

It’s not uncommon to hear stories of a family stricken by the common cold, the flu or any kind of “bug”, and while Mom gets it and still continues to care for her sick kids, keep the house clean and make sure everyone is medicated, Dad is bedridden for days.

It’s jokingly called the “man flu,” but now science says the seemingly exaggerated reaction to illness often found when men get sick might actually have some backing.

We talked to a panel of DFW-area moms to get their reaction.

“My husband puts on a hoodie and pulls it so tight he looks like that kid in South Park,” says Stephanie Sifuentes, a Richardson mom. “Then he lies around unable to move or function.”

“My husband tends to also develop a weird limp,” says Heather Klatt, Dallas. “It has zero to do with illness. He claims nobody has been sicker than he is.”

“Mine moans nonstop, and tends to get louder the longer it’s ignored,” Kimberly Wilson, Dallas, interjects. “My young son, who had the flu at the same time, suggested Dad get it together. Maybe there’s hope for the new generation!”

In similar fashion to Kimberly Wilson’s husband, Morgan Vickery, Dallas, says her husband groans until he is sure his cries are heard.

“When I finally say ‘Are you okay? What’s wrong?’ he will almost whisper in a raspy voice ‘Nothing, I’m fine. I’ll be okay.’ Then back to the noises.”

So we asked our panel: What if we told you there might be scientific evidence that the “man flu” is actually a real thing?

“I wouldn’t care,” says Andrea Harris, a Dallas mom. “I pushed two 10-pound babies out.”

One anonymous mom was skeptical and questioned if the study was done by a man.

Canadian researcher Kyle Sue (yes, a man) began looking to see if he could scientifically explain why men seem to suffer more than women when it comes to “minor” ailments.

“Tired of being accused of overreacting, I searched the available evidence to determine whether men really experience worse symptoms and whether this could have any evolutionary basis,” Sue wrote in his article in the British Medical Journal.

Sue looked to mice first, to see if there were gender differences, and noted that infections tend to release corticosterone, a stress hormone. Females, he found, had a greater reaction than males, meaning that females suppress the symptoms of infection at a greater rate than male mice.

Estrogen also helped females reduce the levels of virus counts, he found. And when estrogen levels were reduced in female mice, they became more likely to get viral infections.

In humans, studies found that women who were still having periods (which means their estrogen and other female hormones are at regular levels) had a better immune response against colds than men the same age.

Sue also looked at World Health Organization flu statistics, which revealed that adult men had a higher risk of being admitted to the hospital with flu-like symptoms and/or complications. In the United States, men have a greater risk of death due to influenza compared to women, and women show a better response to the flu vaccine and fewer complications due to flu or other respiratory infections.

None of this really surprises Heather Bartos, M.D., chief of obstetrics and gynecology and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Denton.

“Sometimes hormones work for women’s benefit, though many times it feels they don’t,” she says. “Also, remember that evolutionarily speaking, we need more women than men. One man can repopulate a whole bunch! So, women need to be stronger [to accommodate].”

“Man flu is real!” chuckles Minh Nghi, M.D., a physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Southwest Fort Worth. “All kidding aside, it may relate to the psycho-social expectations for men.

“There is a difference between pain and suffering. Some men tend to suffer more for the same amount of discomfort,” he adds. “Stoic men who seek help later may just be that much more ill than those who seek help sooner.”

So should treatment for colds or the flu be different for men than women? Nghi says that the treatment isn’t different, but that men frequently wait much longer to seek medical attention than women do.

“This is especially true with single men,” he adds. “Time and time again, I have seen men brought in at the request of their significant others. These men would not have sought help otherwise.”

The longer you wait to seek a doctor’s care, the more likely secondary infections and complications can happen, too.

“That being said, the treatment may differ if the severity of the disease is higher—if they waited too long,” Nghi says. “As such, they may have developed secondary infections, such as pneumonia. These are patients that are often admitted to this hospital instead of being sent home.”

No matter your gender, putting off a visit to the doctor does no one any good. To find a physician near you, use our simple “Find a Physician” tool, so you can stay healthy year-round!

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