Summer is slowly but surely drawing to a close, and the flu season is just around the corner. Influenza is a bother for all of us, but for one particular group of people, around half of the world’s population, it’s particularly harsh: men. Or at least that’s the way it seems.
For years now, women have been accusing their male spouses of being overly-dramatic about their illnesses, and flu in particular, and exaggerating just how sick they really are, to the point where they spend entire days bedridden and powerless to do even the most rudimentary of chores. But what if they aren’t faking it? What if men really do react more poorly to the flu?
One general practitioner and clinical assistant professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada, Dr. Kyle Sue, grew tired of being accused of overreacting to the flu, and set out to get to the bottom of the matter of the “man flu” and find out whether it is a myth or a scientific fact.
He went about this via a rigorous search of all existing scientific literature about sex differences in immunology and found some truly eye-opening information:
One 1984 study from the Bar Ilan University in Israel compared the immunologic capacity of male and female mice, finding what appears to be a direct connection between estrogen and an improved immune activity, suggesting that hormones may hold the key to unlocking the mystery of the man flu. But could the result be replicated in humans?
A more recent 2010 study from the University of Queensland in Australia did just that, by isolating mononuclear blood cells from 63 healthy individuals of disparate ages and genders. The cells were then introduced to the rhinovirus, the infectious agent responsible for the common cold. What they found was that the immune response was significantly better among premenopausal women compared to men and older women, again reaffirming the role of estrogen in women soldiering through disease.
There may be other factors in play, though, as men are, on average, more likely to indulge in excessive drinking, smoking and, while they may like to complain when they get sick, they are also less likely to seek medical counsel, preventative care, or treatment.
Of course, not all is rosy in women’s health, as the same hormone that seems to protect them from succumbing to the common cold and the flu is leaving them more susceptible to autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and multiple sclerosis, a fact which is again reinforced by reduced flare-ups in postmenopausal women with these conditions.
However, the mechanism behind this dramatic difference between the sexes’ immunological capabilities is not yet understood and we can just surmise that, in the case of men, the body has evolved to prioritize testosterone production for increased physical strength and the development of masculine bodily features over general health.
The conclusion of Dr. Sue’s deep dive? Men aren’t milking their sick days for what they’re worth, nor are they faking it or whining. Men, simply put, have an inferior immune system compared to that of women, especially when it comes to respiratory diseases. So if your son or husband is lying in bed moaning because of a bad case of the flu, give him a break. He really is feeling that bad.