Man-flu: is it a real thing?

As I write this, I have tonsillitis. So does a male friend of mine. It came on at around the same time two nights ago, and we’ve both been taking the same medication. As I write this, he is curled up in a little ball, unable to swallow. Me, I’m full of soft food and blogging. So what is the difference here? Does my friend have man-flu? Is man-flu even a real thing?

Man-flu is the term used to refer to how men always seem to be iller than women. With a cold, men are more likely to label it flu than women. Apparently.

Note the distinct lack of hyperlinks in the above paragraph. This is because the idea of man-flu is based on anecdotal evidence, and a web-survey from readers of Nuts magazine. Nuts magazine has a certain target demographic, which is distinctly male, and asked some rather leading questions. From self-report, then, it would appear that man-flu does not really exist at all.

But then there’s the science–the actual, sciency-evidence-stuff that means man-flu must exist, and that men do get sicker than women. A study came out showing that men have weaker immune systems than women, because female hormones improve the immune system. It seems so clean-cut when viewed like that. Man-flu exists.

Except it doesn’t. That study was conducted on mice who were given a gene that generally doesn’t exist in humans. I don’t think any more needs to be said about how thoroughly unapplicable that finding is to real human beings.

Then there’s the evolutionary explanation, which sets my teeth right on edge as anything attempting to explain differences between men and women by the medium of “we were made this way” does. This explanation goes back to the hormones again: testosterone makes men more vulnerable, apparently. It all comes down to sex, apparently, and men have swapped the ability not to get knocked out by a little sniffle for greater reproductive success. There’s also another study which suggests women go down to “male” standards of infection after the menopause. Once again, the evidence to support these claims are shaky at best: it comes from single studies.

In terms of single studies, there are also some which suggest that women are worse off. For example, women tend to take more sick days, and tend to perceive more pain. Of course, these studies do not prove the existence of “woman-flu”; they are of roughly the same level of evidence as that “proving” man-flu.

In short, then, man-flu probably doesn’t exist, at least not in any way which has been scientifically detected. Perhaps, then, the effect is down to socialisation: perhaps men do tend to milk their illness more than women as they have been taught to do so by the pervasive man-flu myth. Or, perhaps it is down to stress: in one study of man-flu, the results were found to be explicable entirely by stress, and it is entirely possible that this effect is down to how men are taught to cope with stress (suck it up!) which impacts badly on their immune systems and makes them more ill.

At any rate, as a scientific phenomenon, men do not seem to be sicker than women as a function entirely of gender. If man-flu exists, it is a social phenomenon.

So my friend, the poorly friend, is not more ill because he is a man. I am not feeling better because I’m a woman. It’s likely to be down to individual differences: I am the sort of person who takes illness with a lot of stoicism. Once, while pissing blood from my head and in a post-seizure daze, I tried to send an ambulance away as I had decided I was completely fine and I could handle it myself. Apparently, my grandmother was much the same, and once tried to hide the fact she was having a heart attack as she didn’t fancy being ill at that time.

Individual differences. Socialisation. These are what make certain people sicker than others. Our gender is probably thoroughly irrelevant.


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