Male flu: do men suffer more when they have a cold?

Male flu: do men suffer more when they have a cold?

The supposed man flu is often the subject of jokes and ridicule. The phrase is most commonly used to make fun of men when they have a  cold  or  runny nose  , in some cases appearing more self-pitying than women. But is the male flu really just a myth? In this article, we take a look at the scientific background to male colds: Do men actually suffer more when they have a cold and what could be the reason?

What is man flu?

The male flu is also called male cold and is the derisive term for a cold in men, which is said to be worse than in women. An exact definition for the joked disease is difficult to find. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “a common cold or like mild illness occurring in a man whose account of the severity of the symptoms is deemed to have been exaggerated.”

What is meant by this is a harmless cold whose symptoms are presented as those of a serious illness. Women in particular like to laugh at the clinical picture of the supposedly self-pitying men.

However, some scientific studies have explored how much truth there really is to the phenomenon of man flu and have come to some interesting conclusions.

Are men more likely to get the flu?

A 2012 South Korean study of  swine flu , a form of the  flu that first emerged in 2009, examined the influence of gender on disease progression. 1  The proportion of patients who had to be hospitalized because of swine flu was not only higher among older people, but especially among older male patients. In addition, nearly 70 percent of people who developed pneumonia due to the flu   were male.

Men had to go to the hospital more often than women, at least in old age, and suffered more often from pneumonia, which is a dangerous complication of infection with the virus.

Other studies on the annual flu (influenza, not to be confused with a common cold, i.e. a cold) also provide similar results, according to which men are more seriously affected. A 2014 study from the USA even showed that men were more likely to die from the flu. 2

Does the flu shot work differently in men and women?

Vaccination against influenza can be carried out every year, preferably in autumn. The flu vaccine contains dead viruses, i.e. viruses that can no longer reproduce, or parts of viruses. The  immune system  of the vaccinated person should react to the vaccination by producing antibodies against the injected substance. In the event of subsequent contact with the live influenza virus, the immune system is already armed and knows immediately how to react.

A 2013 study showed that women responded better to the vaccine. 3  Higher levels of  testosterone , the male sex hormone, have been linked to a weakened immune response to vaccination. However, this immune response, in which the antibodies against influenza viruses are formed, is essential for the vaccinated person to be protected from influenza.

According to scientific evidence, testosterone appears to have an immunosuppressive effect. This means that higher blood levels of the hormone weaken the immune system, making it less susceptible to pathogens.

Estrogen, on the other hand, the female sex hormone, stimulates the immune system. This effect is particularly noticeable in women in the period before  menopause  (menopause). After menopause, women no longer get their periods, the production of estrogen decreases and with it the stimulation of the immune system.

Do women have better immune systems?

The  flu shot study  suggests that women may have stronger immune systems than men, at least before menopause.

Another study from 2015 also seems to confirm this and describes women as “immune privileged”. 4  The female sex hormone, estrogen, has a stimulating effect on the cells of the immune system, while testosterone seems to have exactly the opposite effect.

Are men more self-pitying?

The term “man flu” is primarily associated with a whining man with a sniffling nose who spends days recovering from his cold on the sofa. However, a 1998 study showed otherwise. 5

This study examined whether men and women visit their GP when they have a cold and how they behave when they are sick. Contrary to the image of the self-pitying man, it was shown that women reduce their activities much faster than men when they have cold symptoms.

Whether women act sensibly by taking care of themselves earlier and recovering quickly, or whether they are possibly more self-pitying than men, contrary to the clichéd image of male flu, is probably a question of interpretation.

Do men really have a cold that lasts longer?

Another study looked at how long a viral respiratory disease lasted for each gender. 6  In fact, according to this study, it takes men twice as long to recover, on average, as women. While the female patients only needed a day and a half to get well again, the male participants needed three days.

This study also supports the hypothesis that men could suffer more and longer from a cold than women.

Possible reasons for the differences

The studies listed allow the conclusion that the sex hormone in men is to blame for longer and worse colds and flus. However, this need not be the only explanation for the differences found.

A statistic on global tobacco consumption shows that more men than women smoke regularly. 7  Smoking damages the respiratory tract and is therefore a risk factor in its own right, which is why smokers have worse and more frequent respiratory diseases than non-smokers.

According to another publication, men should also go to the doctor less often than women when they are ill or for preventive measures. As a result  , women experience better medical control, which has a positive effect on their health. Regular check-ups ensure that possible illnesses are treated well. After all, not only smoking is a risk factor for worse respiratory diseases. Poorly controlled  diabetes  mellitus (diabetes) or other chronic diseases can also weaken the immune system and thus increase the risk of the disease progressing more severely.

It can therefore be assumed that it is not only the sex hormones that are responsible for the health differences between men and women.

Why men suffer more from respiratory diseases

According to the study results, potential health problems in men can be traced back to the following five reasons:

  1. The male sex hormone has an immunosuppressive effect, i.e. it suppresses the body’s own defences.
  2. Men are more likely to smoke than women, which favors respiratory infections.
  3. Men go to the doctor less often when they are ill.
  4. Men take it easy later than women when symptoms appear.
  5. Men respond less well to the flu shot.

Conclusion: Is a cold worse in men than in women?

The studies mentioned suggest that men, on average, have poorer immune systems than women. A healthy immune system is not only dependent on gender, but also, for example, on physical activity, a balanced diet and not using harmful substances such as the nicotine contained in cigarettes.

Whether men are more self-pitying than women is also individually dependent on the character traits of the respective person. A stronger self-pity of men cannot be scientifically confirmed.

In addition, it is difficult to judge whether a cold is worse in men than in women. What can be said, however, is that men take longer on average to recover from their illness and that they can suffer more severe courses of flu illnesses on average.

These findings suggest that the male flu may not just be a myth, but that there are in fact gender differences in relation to the flu and the common cold.


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