Ah, the “man flu” — dreaded by the men who suffer from it and the people who have to care for them. The man flu looks a lot like a regular cold or virus only the patient (a man) tends to get dramatic about it, requiring extra care and attention while others with the same cold or virus are able to carry on with their lives. As it turns out, there might be some scientific basis for the man flu.
In an article in The British Journal of Medicine, Dr. Kyle Sue, tired of being accused of overreacting when it came to getting a cold, turned to empirical research on the subject to determine whether “men really experience worse symptoms and whether this could have any evolutionary basis.”
For his study, Sue analyzed existing research on respiratory diseases, the common cold, intensive care, the flu and viral infections, looking at symptoms and recovery time for both men and women. He determined that there is an “immunity gap,” meaning that men’s immune systems may be weaker than women’s.
The reason behind this? Sue says it comes down to hormones: Testosterone suppresses the immune system while estrogen boosts it. As a result, his theory is that men can’t help the fact that they react poorly to certain respiratory illnesses.
“The concept of man flu, as commonly defined, is potentially unjust,” Sue writes in the article.
But before you start giving the men in your life a free pass to take up residency on the couch for days at a time demanding soup and back rubs, know that even Sue acknowledges that his research has limitations. For starters, his study didn’t take into consideration other differences between sexes, like the fact that men smoke at higher rates than women (a possibly major contribution to how their bodies processes colds and flus) and are less likely to take preventive care of themselves or seek medical attention when ill.
Sue further supports his claim about hormones by pointing out that pregnant people — who undergo significant hormonal shifts — are more affected by influenza symptoms than women who are not pregnant.
Though Sue says the evolutionary benefits of the man flu are unclear, he points to other research that says it may be part of a survival technique since “it promotes energy conservation and reduces the risk of encountering predators.”
“Classic modes of energy conservation may include lying on the couch, not getting out of bed, or receiving assistance with basic activities of daily living, which could all be effective for avoiding predators,” Sue explains.
In reality, though, most people don’t face the sort of predators our ancestors did, so it’s time for men to continue to evolve into creatures capable of basic functioning during a common cold.