Saturday, July 13, 2024

What’s the difference between ‘man flu’ and flu? Hint: men may not be exaggerating

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What’s the difference? is a new editorial product that explains the similarities and differences between commonly confused health and medical terms, and why they matter.

The term “man flu” takes a humorous poke at men with minor respiratory infections, such as colds, who supposedly exaggerate their symptoms.

According to the stereotype, a man lies on the sofa with a box of tissues. Meanwhile his female partner, also with a snotty nose, carries on working from home, doing the chores and looking after him.

But is man flu real? Is there a valid biological reason behind men’s symptoms or are men just malingering? And how does man flu differ from flu?

What are the similarities?

Man flu could refer to a number of respiratory infections – a cold, flu, even a mild case of COVID. So it’s difficult to compare man flu with flu.

But for simplicity, let’s say man flu is actually a cold. If that’s the case, man flu and flu have some similar features.

Both are caused by viruses (but different ones). Both are improved with rest, fluids, and if needed painkillers, throat lozenges or decongestants to manage symptoms.

Both can share similar symptoms. Typically, more severe symptoms such as fever, body aches, violent shivering and headaches are more common in flu (but sometimes occur in colds). Meanwhile sore throats, runny noses, congestion and sneezing are more common in colds. A cough is common in both.

What are the differences?

Flu is a more serious and sometimes fatal respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus. Colds are caused by various viruses such as rhinoviruses, adenoviruses, and common cold coronaviruses, and are rarely serious.
Colds tend to start gradually while flu tends to start abruptly.

Flu can be detected with laboratory or at-home tests. Man flu is not an official diagnosis.

Severe flu symptoms may be prevented with a vaccine, while cold symptoms cannot.

Serious flu infections may also be prevented or treated with antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu. There are no antivirals for colds.

OK, but is man flu real?

Again, let’s assume man flu is a cold. Do men really have worse colds than women? The picture is complicated.

One study, with the title “Man flu is not a thing”, did in fact show there were differences in men’s and women’s symptoms.

This study looked at symptoms of acute rhinosinusitis. That’s inflammation of the nasal passages and sinuses, which would explain a runny or stuffy nose, a sinus headache or face pain.

When researchers assessed participants at the start of the study, men and women had similar symptoms. But by days five and eight of the study, women had fewer or less-severe symptoms. In other words, women had recovered faster.

But when participants rated their own symptoms, we saw a somewhat different picture. Women rated their symptoms worse than how the researchers rated them at the start, but said they recovered more quickly.

All this suggests men were not exaggerating their symptoms and did indeed recover more slowly. It also suggests women feel their symptoms more strongly at the start.

Why is this happening?

It’s not straightforward to tease out what’s going on biologically.

There are differences in immune responses between men and women that provide a plausible reason for worse symptoms in men.

For instance, women generally produce antibodies more efficiently, so they respond more effectively to vaccination. Other aspects of women’s immune system also appear to work more strongly.

So why do women tend to have stronger immune responses overall? That’s probably partly because women have two X chromosomes while men have one. X chromosomes carry important immune function genes. This gives women the benefit of immune-related genes from two different chromosomes.

XX female chromosomes

X chromosomes carry important immune function genes.

Oestrogen (the female sex hormone) also seems to strengthen the immune response, and as levels vary throughout the lifespan, so does the strength of women’s immune systems.

Men are certainly more likely to die from some infectious diseases, such as COVID. But the picture is less clear with other infections such as the flu, where the incidence and mortality between men and women varies widely between countries and particular flu subtypes and outbreaks.

Infection rates and outcomes in men and women can also depend on the way a virus is transmitted, the person’s age, and social and behavioural factors.

For instance, women seem to be more likely to practice protective behaviours such as washing their hands, wearing masks or avoiding crowded indoor spaces. Women are also more likely to seek medical care when ill.

So men aren’t faking it?

Some evidence suggests men are not over-reporting symptoms, and may take longer to clear an infection. So they may experience man flu more harshly than women with a cold.

So cut the men in your life some slack. If they are sick, gender stereotyping is unhelpful, and may discourage men from seeking medical advice.

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