Man Flu: Fact or Fiction?

Written by Ryan Jones

The American lung Association (ALA) projects the flu virus will affect 5 to 20 percent of Americans this year, with most infections occurring between December and March. To help communities stave off the illness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sets forth a raft of statistics and fact sheets, available for viewing on its official website.  For those over the age of six months, both the ALA and CDC recommend vaccination as the first layer of defense, citing a 48 percent reduced risk of infection.

Easy access to flu-prevention is good news for the estimated 331,000 men living in Hampton Roads. The gender otherwise associated with masculinity is not known for coping well with flu-like symptoms. Many women are amused (and annoyed) by a man’s apparent inability to function while afflicted with minor illness — especially when they themselves continue to push through daily responsibilities while suffering the same symptoms. The quirk has led to a whimsical diagnosis known as “man flu,” defined in the Oxford dictionary as “a cold or similar minor ailment as experienced by a man who is regarded as exaggerating the severity of the symptoms.”

Since experience of flu-like symptoms is subjective, men are left with little defense for their whining other than the amusing claim in Urban Dictionary that “man flu is 10,000 times worse than childbirth.” Recent research, however, may give men the science they need to deliver a more plausible argument.

The science of man flu

Current studies support the possibility of heightened male reaction to some illnesses. The research centers on the female hormone estrogen and the male hormone testosterone, and their polarized effects on the body’s response to discomfort and illness.

  • A study published by the University of Kansas Medical Center shows that elevated estrogen levels in female subjects have a blunting effect on pain and physical discomfort.
  • A study published in the American Journal of Physiology claims that exposure to estrogen and estrogen-like compounds slows development of the infuenza A virus in female nasal cells, indicating females are better equipped to thwart reproduction of influenza in the body. The same test produced no effect on male subjects.
  • A professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health claims that male immune cells have more active receptors for some pathogens, suggesting that males may actually be more vulnerable to infection and suffer more potent symptoms from flu-like viruses.
  • A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that men with high levels of circulating testosterone demonstrate a weaker response to flu vaccination.

The consensus from this research is that estrogen has a beneficial effect on immune response. Conversely, testosterone may have an adverse affect on immune response, increasing both the chance of infection with influenza and the duration of the illness. To add to the argument, Durham University neuroscientist Amanda Ellison claims that males have more temperature regulators in the preoptic nucleus section of the brain. She postulates this could cause a stronger sensory reaction to fevers associated with the flu.

Do women really have the edge come flu season?

While these conclusions seem to present a convincing case for the verity of man flu, women have a valid physiological  argument. The majority of symptoms associated with flu infection are not caused by the virus itself, but from the body’s immune response. If immune response is stronger in women than men because of the estrogen effect, it would seem that women would experience more severe symptoms than men, not the reverse. Given available facts, some scientists conclude that women have more pronounced symptoms at the onset of infection, but recover more quickly than men. Men have less pronounced initial symptoms, but are slower to recover. Since the experience of flu-like symptoms is subjective, we may never know for sure.

Man flu — or any flu — is no laughing matter

Whether you are debating the issue of who will make the chicken soup come flu season or considering vaccination, the flu is no laughing matter. The ALA estimates between 3,000 and 49,000 people die from the flu or its complications each year. While the overwhelming consensus among medical experts is to begin prevention efforts with vaccination, these six common-sense tips from the CDC will help you win the battle with influenza be you a stoic female ignoring symptoms for the common good or an embattled male with a temporary freeze on his man card:

  • Avoid close contact with other people, especially those who are sick.
  • Stay home if you are sick to avoid spreading the virus.
  • Cover your mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap, water and sanitizer. Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you for times when sinks aren’t accessible.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth, as these are frequent points of infection.
  • Practice other good health and sanitation habits like wiping countertops and tending to appropriate sleep and nutrition.

If you do get sick during flu season, make sure to see a doctor. Medical professionals can assist in distinguishing between a common cold and the flu. If the flu virus is diagnosed, antiviral medications can be prescribed to decrease severity and duration of symptoms. Many medical facilities offer complimentary nose and mouth masks to help prevent the spread of the flu virus. Don’t be afraid to slip one on in the waiting room — chances are, you won’t be alone.

About the author

Ryan Jones

Ryan is a freelance writer, fitness enthusiast, and twenty-year veteran of integrated pest management. He has given presentations and published articles in the Williamsburg area for over eight years.