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Science confirms the Man Flu

Jason Poquette RPh, BS Pharm

For years it seems men have been accused of exaggerating their cold symptoms. Recently I read a medical satire article about a new hospital “emergency wing” opened exclusively for treating cases of man flu. The comical journalist quipped “It is well known, that this group are particularly severely affected by colds, and therefore need intensive care in order to save their lives.”

Well, now we have news for you. Apparently the man flu is a real thing! A Canadian scientist by the name of Kyle Sue of Memorial University of Newfoundland researched the data and published his findings in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in December 2017. The article begins by noting that “Since about half of the world’s population is male, deeming male viral respiratory symptoms as “exaggerated” without rigorous scientific evidence, could have important implications for men, including insufficient provision of care.”

Kyle based his initial hypothesis on the fact that female mice generally have a stronger immune response to viruses than male mice. The stronger protection has been linked to oestradiol, a female hormone primarily involved in the development of the reproductive system. Human studies focusing on the immune response of cells from men vs. women have found a similar sex-dependent response.

Men and women also seem to respond differently to immunization. One theory is that the higher testosterone levels in men tend to result in weaker immune system response to vaccines. This suggests that immunized men may not have quite the same level of protection as immunized women, leading to more prolonged or serious symptoms.

Finally, Kyle cited a less scientific study that surveyed over 2,000 readers of a popular magazine and found that men typically took 3 days to recover from cold-related illnesses vs. 1.5 days for women.

Whether men have worse flu symptoms than women may still be controversial, regardless of recent studies. What isn’t controversial is that cold and flu season are upon us, and we should all be aware of how to manage the symptoms that may come.

Colds and flu, though caused by different viruses, have similar symptoms such as cough, fever, congestion and body aches. Flu symptoms tend to be more severe and may result in pneumonia, hospitalizations and even death for individuals with other complications.

Both colds and flu are easily spread. The best to protect yourself is to avoid contact with infected individuals, cover your coughs and sneezes and wash your hands frequently. Immunization is a good idea as well, though the effectiveness of the vaccine will vary from year to year.

If you do get sick, and have reason to believe it is the flu, call your doctor’s office. They may be able to prescribe an anti-viral prescription known as oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) which should be started within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. The capsules are taken twice daily for 5 days. Patients taking oseltamivir tend to recover 1-2 days quicker. And by the way, both men and women seemed to respond equally to this medication in clinical studies.

Patients can see their local pharmacist for suggestions on treating the symptoms associated with a cold or flu. Cough suppressants and fever reducers are available without a prescription and may help make patients more comfortable as they recover.

And finally, remember to get plenty of rest. In fact, the male-author of the “man flu” article in the BMJ said, perhaps with just a tinge of self-interest, “Perhaps now is the time for male friendly spaces, equipped with enormous televisions and reclining chairs, to be set up where men can recover from the debilitating effects of man flu in safety and comfort.”

I couldn’t agree more.