The Mystery of Man Flu: Why Men Suffer more When Sick

The image of a man lying in bed with a common cold, suffering like he is about to die, can make many women roll their eyes. However, new research shows that “man flu” does exist.

Image Credit: Wavebreak Media Ltd / /

Do men really get sicker?

It is often thought that men tend to exagerrate their symptoms when they get sick in order to receive extra care. They lie in bed, suffer and moan, while women in the same condition supposedly go on working and doing all their chores. However, this image may not be true. Studies show that men and other male mammals to get sick more often and more seriously: for example, influenza prevalence and mortality is higher among men (more info in this study) and they generally have a shorter average lifespan. Men get sick more often and more seriously, which means a weaker immune response – but why?

Possible explanations

So far, there is no conclusive evidence as to why the male immune system reacts so badly to some diseases, especially influenza. We have to remember that what makes us feel sick is not just the bacterium or virus itself, but our own response, too! What is different about men?

  1. Hormones. Some research suggests that the female hormone estradiol strengthens the immune system, while testosteron, by contrast, suppresses it. It may seem strange that the same hormone that makes males more masculine and attractive to females also makes them more susceptible to disease, but, according to scientists, in the world where males tend to die from trauma and wounds rather than disease – which is true for animals and our ancestors – the advantages of testosterone (increased strength, speed, etc.) can outweigh its flaws. Women, on the other hand, tend to pass on pathogens to their babies, so it is important for them to have a strong immune response; however, it also means that they are more prone to auto-immune diseases.
  2. Immune redistribution. Another study argues that men do not have less immune cells – they are just distributed differently: the same risk of injury leads to a concentration of white blood cells in the skin, rather than in the blood. Again, testosterone is the key.
  3. MicroRNA. Scientists have only recently discovered microRNAs – small molecules of ribonucleic acid that do not code our genes by themselves but rather control how various genes are expressed and “silence” some of them. Circa 10% of all microRNAs are contained on the X chromosome – women have two of those, while men only have one. Some researchers suggest that many of these microRNAs control the expression of immunity-related genes, and men simply lack part of that genetic information.

Men do need care

Of course, it’s not just that men experience stronger symptoms when they are sick – they also get sick more often than women. It may be partly because men are very unqilling to go to doctors, and thus they miss the moment when their immune system gets under strain. On the other hand, men tend to experience more stress at work, and the negative influence that stress has on immune response is well-documented. Finally, according to statistics, men are less likely to wash their hands and take other preemptive measures.

Whatever the reason, “man flu” does seem to exist, and men may indeed feel much more sick when they go down with a cold. Do not ridicule your husband or boyfriend when it happens – rather, make sure he takes medicine and cook him some soup or another comforting hot dish. And whenever you feel the urge to roll your eyes, don’t – remind yourself that his immune system is just a little bit weaker.

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