©Arlene R. Taylor PhD    www.arlenetaylor.org

articles200408“Tell me about ‘Man Flu’.” The Voice on the phone might have been female. It was definitely irritated. 

“Man Flu?” I asked, curiously.

“Yes!” the Voice demanded. “I know both males and females can catch a flu virus. But ‘Man Flu’? Give me a break! Is there even such a thing?”

I tried to reply that there probably is such a thing—but the persistent Voice drowned me out.

“My partner and I both got the flu. He’s flaked out on the couch grunting like a wounded moose, asking me to ‘Please fix some tea with lemon and honey,’ and ‘Would you rub my back?’ and ‘I could sure use a cold cloth on my hot head.’ And that is just for starters! I am so ticked that I told him in no uncertain terms that ‘I have the flu, too—thank you,’ but I am up and around fixing meals and taking care of the family. So he turned on the TV and—wouldn’t you know it?—heard a blurb about Man Flu. Now the situation has deteriorated even further. It’s all in his head, if you ask me.... ”

When the Voice finally ran down, I explained that the term can actually be found in several dictionaries. Definitions point out that when a male experiences the flu (or other minor respiratory ailments), the perception is that males act like it is more serious than it really is and overly exaggerate the severity of the symptoms.

As fate would have it, I’d just read an article by Dr. Kyle Sue published in the December 2017 British Medical Journal [BMJ] entitled, “The Science behind Man Flu.” Dr. Sue, a clinical assistant professor in family medicine at the Health Sciences Centre, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, Newfoundland in Canada, reportedly decided to do this research, having grown weary of accusations that men “overreact.” He wanted to study if men really are worse off when they get sick—as some suggest is the case with Man Flu.

I explained that Dr. Sue analyzed relevant studies related to respiratory diseases, the common cold, intensive care, the flu, and viral infections. Symptoms exhibited by males and females were compared in each study. His conclusion? There was indeed a gender "immunity gap."

After suggesting that the caller—when in better health—might want to check out the article with its supporting list of documented studies, I did recite several research conclusions. First, females appear more responsive to flu immunizations than males. One study noted that men with higher testosterone levels had more down regulation of antibody response to vaccination, suggesting an immunosuppressive role for testosterone.

In addition, males are more susceptible to complications from many acute respiratory diseases and exhibit a higher mortality, for these reasons:

  • The male body is not designed to handle fluid imbalances as is the female body (such as tend to occur during menstruation). Consequently, male muscles may ache more as the virus attacks the body. Since approximately 40% of the male body is muscle, there is a lot more tissue to ache, when compared to the average female’s muscular composition.
  • The Immune System appears to be carried on the X chromosome. Males typically have one X, so if their immune system is not particularly strong there is no second X to stimulate (hopefully) a stronger system, as in females.
  • Researchers surveyed both men and women consulting general practitioners for common symptoms of minor infectious respiratory illness, finding that “women were significantly more likely to report cutting down activities in response to only one symptom in each cohort,” contradicting the common myth that men cut down activities more than women by exaggerating the severity of symptoms. There was also some suggestion that clinical observers are more ready to attribute symptoms and illness to women than to men, while tending to under-rate men’s symptoms.

And, in case the Voice still felt some uncertainty, I added that even the World Health Organization affirms that “whether the patient is male or female should be considered when evaluating influenza exposure and outcomes.”

“Hmm-m,” said the Voice.

“After reading Dr. Sue’s article,” I continued, “one woman’s comment went like this: ‘I heard somewhere that it takes men at least three days to recover from the flu, compared with half that time for women. I suppose that’ll give them some idea of how women feel when they get menstrual cramps for three days—and usually just keep-on-keeping on. I guess it all comes out in the wash.’”

Males and females (as members of the same species) do have some definite differences. The so-called “Man Flu” may be one of them. Males and females are both susceptible to the flu, but there does appear to be some physiological differences in how their bodies respond to the virus—and it seemingly isn’t “all in his head.”

The Voice let go with what sounded like a groan. “I suppose there are recommendations of how to address this?”

Absolutely! A 2006 press release from Nuts magazine in Britain, writes: “Let the word be spread that our womenfolk must go that extra mile to care for us when we are stricken with (the flu), so that future shelves can be erected, cars can be maintained, and football stadia throughout the land can be well attended.”

Dr. Sue also points out the “benefits to energy conservation when ill… Perhaps now is the time for male friendly spaces, equipped with enormous televisions and reclining chairs, to be set up where men can recover from the debilitating effects of man flu in safety and comfort.” [Italics mine]

I chuckled at the clever wording: “in safety” duly noted.

“What’s your bottom line?” asked the Voice.

My attempt to answer with forthright compassion went like this:

  1. How one person feels when ill may differ from how another person feels. Acknowledge the differences, avoid comparisons, and evidence suitable empathy.
  1. Be proactive every day in doing all you can to support your immune system and that of the people you love.
  1. When someone you care about becomes ill with the flu, help him or her get through it as is appropriate and within balance—while taking good care of yourself in the off chance that you might avoid also getting sick.

After a pause, the Voice, with considerably less irritation, said, “Ah-h, thank you.” And, before I could say “You’re welcome,” the Voice was gone—perhaps to brew some tea ...with lemon and honey.