Fact or fiction: is the flu really worse for men than for women?


Is it real or just an exaggeration?

Do men experience the flu in a different way than women do? Sometimes it feels like it. Whenever men fall down with the flu, their overt displays of suffering make it seem like a near-death experience. But is this dramatic exaggeration of symptoms called ‘man-flu’ actually a thing?


In 2018, in scientific magazine The BMJ, general practitioner Kyle Sue claimed that men experience the flu differently than women do. He said that the experience of being sick would be worse for men than it would be for women. But it turned out that the results of this research might not be completely trustworthy.


Hans van Maanen, a scientific journalist, read the piece written by Sue and came to the conclusion that a lot of statements are actually incorrect. Sue has since then admitted to making mistakes. His explanation for the inaccuracies? He had made handwritten notes during his research which he might have misread later, causing faulty citations.

Some truth to it?

Although Kyle Sue’s research might not have been perfectly executed, a study from 2020 actually showed that women might have less severe symptoms when catching the flu. The symptoms caused by the flu are the result of your immune system fighting the illness. Because your body needs all the energy it can get, it makes sure you stay in bed by causing flu-like symptoms. Women appear to have a lesser immune response due to the hormone estradiol, a female sex hormone, which modulates the action of immune cells. This means that people with higher levels of estradiol could have less severe flu symptoms. Another study showed that when it comes to the flu, men are hospitalized more often than women and the reported deaths due to the flu are lower for the latter category.  

Even though the research is not extensive enough to make bold claims on the difference between men and women, it might not be complete nonsense to assume that men experience illnesses different from women, even though it might seem too dramatic to be believable. 

Also read: 9 things you should clean after a flu wave

Source: Volkskrant, Viva, Harvard Health Publishing | Image: Unsplash, Kelly Sikkema