healthHealth and Medicine

"Man Flu" Is A Real Thing, According To Researchers


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

That teddy bear must stink of snot. Elnur/Shutterstock

Man flu. Yes, we know – some of you, upon reading that, groaned, whereas others threw their arms up in despair saying “finally, the science has been settled”. Is man flu, the idea that men experience colds and influenza infections more severely than women, a valid scientific concept?

Full disclosure: we don’t know, and no-one does. There have been a handful of studies published on the phenomenon, but no solid, cause-and-effect evidence demonstrating that man flu is real has ever surfaced. Now, as part of the Christmas issue of the BMJ, one maverick researcher decided to parse through the evidence and see what for.


He concludes that there’s a fair bit of (arguably) circumstantial evidence that man flu is indeed real.

Now, here’s a very important caveat: do not take this seriously. It’s a somewhat jocular study, as are most of those released as part of the BMJ’s Christmas bonanza.

If you needed any more confirmation of this, remember that in Christmas 2015, a paper explaining how to stop a zombie virus outbreak was also published by the BMJ.

In any case, it has to be said that the (non-peer reviewed) review is a joy to read.


“Despite the universally high incidence and prevalence of viral respiratory illnesses, no scientific review has examined whether the term 'man flu' is appropriately defined or just an ingrained pejorative term with no scientific basis,” Dr Kyle Sue, a clinical assistant professor from the Memorial University of Newfoundland, begins.

“Tired of being accused of over-reacting, I searched the available evidence to determine whether men really experience worse symptoms and whether this could have any evolutionary basis.”

Searching through seven academic databases, reading through the abstracts of hundreds of papers, and then checking out how thoroughly researched the most relevant articles were, he reached his controversial conclusion.

It appears that men don’t exaggerate their symptoms; rather, they have a weaker immune response to viral respiratory illnesses. This leads to both an increase in the severity of the symptoms experienced, and even mortality rates, as determined by hospital records.


Yeesh. Why would this be the case?

According to his own personal survey of the scientific literature, Sue suggests that there’s a hormonal link, either because the balance within men leads to a weaker immune response, the constituency within women promotes a stronger immune response, or both.

Plenty of studies don’t control for other factors, though, so really, at this point, the evidence isn’t exactly concrete. So if anyone asks you if man flu exists, you can tell them with confidence that no-one knows for sure. Until there’s strong enough evidence, it’s erroneous to say that it’s real.

If it is ultimately shown to be a certified affliction, then this means that men, immunologically speaking, are wimps.


Again, there are strong hints that the paper is fairly tongue-in-cheek, so don’t take it as seriously as most academic studies. After all, it does include a passage near the end about man flu victims resting on sofas.

Noting that there are benefits to energy conservation when “lying on the couch, not getting out of bed, or receiving assistance with activities of daily living” when afflicted with man flu – such as avoiding predatory monsters in times gone by – the author concludes in a rather jarring fashion.

“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.”


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