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When a man gets sick with a common cold or a case of flu, people often refer to him as having ‘man flu.’ This is a phrase that is so widely used; it has even made its way into the dictionary. Dictionary.com defines man flu as “informal, derogatory – a case of the common cold as suffered by a man, implying that he is exaggerating the debilitating effects of the illness.” So, if the official definition tells us that man flu is all about men exaggerating about how unwell they feel, is man flu just a joke? Research conducted by medical scientists suggests that there may be some truth behind the idea that men really do suffer worse than women when it comes to viral respiratory conditions such as flu.

 

What is Flu?

The composition of the virus-like appearance under the microscope. 3d render.

The proper name for flu is influenza. It is a fairly common respiratory illness – each year, somewhere between 5 and 15% of people catch the flu. Temperate countries have a winter ‘flu season’ when cases of the virus peak. While flu is usually a mild illness that most people find they shake off quite easily within a few weeks, it can be serious. Children, the elderly, and those with underlying health conditions are more likely to suffer from a more serious flu infection. Some flu infections progress into secondary bacterial infections, which require antibiotic treatment. Pneumonia is one possible complication – this is a serious lung condition, which can require hospital treatment. Influenza is a respiratory illness that several viruses can cause. The flu virus mutates very rapidly, and each year medical scientists predict which strain is going to be prevalent in order to develop a vaccine that will be effective. High-risk groups are vaccinated against seasonal influenza in many countries. Flu tends to spread easily through populations, and flu pandemics occur a number of times each century, most recently in the swine flu pandemic of 2009. 

Flu causes a number of symptoms. Those who contract the virus may have some or all of the symptoms, and they may range in severity. One of the key things about flu that helps doctors to recognize it is that the symptoms tend to come on very quickly. Symptoms can include the following:

  • Fatigue
  • High temperature/fever (not always present)
  • Nasal symptoms – runny nose/stuffy nose/congestion
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Body aches/muscle pain
  • Gastric symptoms such as vomiting/diarrhea

The symptoms of flu can last from a few days to over a week. It may vary in severity, depending on the specific virus that has caused the infection, the immune system of the person infected, and other risk factors such as age; older people tend to suffer from flu more than younger people. But does being a man put you more at risk of more severe symptoms? Could man flu be a real thing?

 

Is Man Flu a Real Thing?

Hormones medical concept - man flu could be a thing because of the difference in sexes

Recent studies into flu have thrown up some interesting results that have led experts to put forward a number of theories about how flu may be worse for men than it is for women. Research shows that men tend to have a higher risk of ending up in the hospital or dying from flu when you compare their outcomes to women of the same age.

Experts have come up with a number of reasons for the difference in how men react to influenza infections. One of the most compelling theories is that it comes down to hormonal differences between the sexes. Studies suggest that testosterone may reduce the immune response to flu so that the body does not fight the viral infection as effectively. In women, female sex hormones may actually support the immune response to viral respiratory infections so that they have better outcomes than men. This difference in how well the body fights against flu is not as pronounced after menopause, when hormone levels change, suggesting that female sex hormones play a role in protecting the body from viral infections.

A study into man flu by the BMJ (British Medical Journal) has put forward a compelling case for man flu being a genuine illness, with men suffering more severe symptoms and having a higher risk of suffering from complications. However, the study also undermines the cliché that men simply give in to man flu while women tend to battle the symptoms and get on with life. Instead, it references a study in which women were found to be more likely to rest when they became ill with flu. Could this provide some insight into why women recover more easily? Let’s take a look at how experts recommend we treat flu (or man flu) for more information.

 

Treating Flu

Man keeping hydrated and warm to treat his man flu

There is typically no treatment for flu unless the case is severe and requires antiviral drugs. As it is a viral infection, antibiotics are of no use in fighting a case of flu. So, if you have flu – or man flu – what can you do to help you recover?

  • Fluids – Drinking plenty is extremely important. Being dehydrated makes flu symptoms worse and can make you more likely to suffer from complications. Hot fluids may be more soothing than cold.
  • Rest – Take it easy! Rest allows your body to fight the infection. You may feel tired and exhausted; this is your body telling you it needs you to rest.
  • Stay warm – Keeping warm and comfortable. 
  • Use over-the-counter pain relief – Acetaminophen can help relieve pain and ease symptoms of a fever.

 

Avoiding Flu

Man washing hands to avoid catching the flu

There are a lot of things you can do to avoid getting the flu:

  • Hand hygiene – Washing hands regularly and using a hand sanitizer when you do not have access to soap and water is key to keeping you safe from flu and other respiratory conditions.
  • Touchpoints – Think about touchpoints when you are out and about. Flu virus particles land on surfaces, so it makes sense to avoid touching common surfaces that many people may have touched or cleaning touch points regularly.
  • Healthy lifestyle – Feed your immune system by eating a healthy diet, stop smoking (this greatly increases the risk of complications), and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Avoid contact with those infected – If someone is ill, maintain a safe distance from them and practice good hygiene if caring for someone who is sick.