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Is 'man flu' real? Our experts have the answers

Dr Dan Robertson photo

Created: 15 November, 2016

Updated: 30 August, 2018

This winter, thousands of men across the country will be the butt of many jokes as they struggle with the sniffles.

Is 'man flu' a real thing, or are blokes making a big fuss about nothing? Our experienced doctors are here to help you settle the argument once and for all.

Man with 'man flu'

What exactly is 'man flu'?

Since man flu isn’t a recognised medical condition, it’s hard to pin down the exact symptoms.

This is especially true if we believe that women feel men are making a big song and dance made about some sniffles, while men feel as if there is an all-out assault on their immune system.

In general, it’s usually associated with cold and flu-like symptoms, such as:

  • High temperature
  • Excessive tiredness
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Blocked nose
  • Coughs and sneezes

Of course, what makes it 'man flu' is how men react to it. Generally, the more unhappy a man is with their situation, the more likely their illness will be dismissed as 'man flu'. Staying home from work or even just asking for help can be enough to get this label.

Do viruses treat men and women differently?

One potential explanation for man flu lies in the different ways men and women respond to infections.

According to a 2016 Royal Holloway, University of London study discussed in New Scientist, viruses may have modified themselves to 'take it easy' on women.

This is because the virus wants to be passed on to children through pregnancy or breastfeeding, which will provide them with a new 'host' where they can continue to multiply.

What scientists don't yet know is how a virus would be able to work out whether it's infected a man or a woman.

Hot cup of tea

Who has the best immune system?

Another theory is that the immune systems of males and females react differently to infections.

It's thought that a high level of oestrogen is linked to a more responsive immune system, as it makes it harder for viruses to reproduce.

In other words, women are biologically better at fending off viruses. However, this sensitive immune system has also been cited as a reason why allergies and autoimmune diseases are more common in women.

Men, on the other hand, have higher levels of testosterone. Studies have shown that this hampers their ability to combat flu viruses.

There's even research to suggest that the male brain instinctively reacts to the signs of a virus by raising the body temperature, which could explain some of the symptoms of 'man flu'.

It’s all in the mind

In addition to a potential physiological explanation, there’s also evidence that men and women perceive illness differently. This research goes back over 20 years, which shows you how long people have been trying to make sense of man flu!

A 1993 study asked male and female volunteers suffering from the common cold to rate their symptoms, while also being assessed by clinical observers.

Results indicated that men were “significantly” more likely to over-rate their symptoms when compared to both the impartial observer and women included in the trial.

On the other hand, some studies seem to contradict the idea of 'man flu' at all. A nationwide flu survey carried out by London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine during last winter found that women were 16% more likely to say they had flu symptoms.

If you have children, it's been suggested that the levels of RTIs like colds could actually be higher for the primary caregiver, since your little ones are most at risk of developing, and passing on, such conditions.


The bottom line

Despite some compelling evidence, the jury’s still out on whether an exaggerated response to viruses, or a relatively weaker immune system could be to blame for the dreaded man flu.

While there’s evidence men may react more severely to illnesses than the fairer sex, man flu still isn’t recognised as a medical condition and it doesn’t look like it will be any time soon.

Do you believe in man flu, or think men are just milking it? Let us know what you think in the comments or share your views on Facebook or Twitter.

And if you’re feeling under the weather, don’t forget, you can download the Push Doctor app to see an experienced UK GP through your smartphone, tablet or computer 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

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