By: Steve Bond, BScPhm, RPh, CDE
Recently, a female colleague returned from a trip down South and lamented that it could have been better except for a nasty cold. To make matters worse, her husband was now also sick but more severely. This sparks the discussion as to whether or not there are differences between the sexes when it comes to how we respond to colds. A few years ago, a researcher from Newfoundland, Dr. Kyle Sue, posted a paper in the British Medical Journal, which looked at these differences to see if the term Man Flu was a fair assessment or a biased stereotype. The Oxford dictionary defines Man Flu as “a cold or similar minor illness that a man catches and treats as if it were the flu or something more serious.” There is no scientific evidence to support this title and it appears to be based solely on observation. Dr. Sue’s research looked at many studies and summarized their results in his paper. He examined research in mice which showed female mice have stronger immune responses compared to their male counterparts.
Similarly, he highlighted studies in humans which found heightened responses to vaccines in women. Other observational studies have found a higher rate of flu-related hospitalizations and death in men compared to women, although many factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption and not seeking medical attention were not taken into account.
While not 100% verified, one reason for this potential difference in response is hormones. Testosterone which is higher in men, has a suppressing effect on the immune system whereas estrogen, the dominant female hormone, stimulates it.
One colleague offered a different, perhaps less empathetic, explanation of why men appear to exhibit worse symptoms than women: “As mothers and wives, women can’t afford to get sick, so they just tough it out.”
Hopefully Dr. Sue’s summary of the available research will open eyes to the possibility that there may be differences between the sexes although further study is required. We know that there are differences with respect to heart disease, osteoporosis and depression; so why not colds and the flu? Regardless of which camp each of us belongs to (myth or medically valid), we should all take steps to lessen the impact of colds and the flu such as washing hands, vaccinations and avoiding close contact with others when we are sick. Take care of yourselves and each other.