Man Flu: A Man's Illness?

There may be some validity to the tease, experts say.

Oct. 29, 2008 — -- Imagine for a moment that a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, hardened by four overseas deployments, has endured broken limbs and other serious injuries.

Yet, at the first sign of a cold, this trained soldier collapses into a pathetic and helpless pile.

Such a situation is nothing new for Leanne, who preferred that her last name not be disclosed. She said she is fascinated by how, at the first sign of a cold, her husband, Ed, can turn from warrior to what she calls "wimp."

"My husband's been to war four times, and a simple head cold takes him down for the count," she said.

She says many women agree that what is regarded as a common cold for women is no simple ailment to men. In fact, it even has its own name: "man-flu."

An expression popularly coined in Britain, man-flu is a tongue-in-cheek term used to describe any man's experience of getting the common cold.

The phrase, which is gaining popularity among American women, highlights the irony that a man with perhaps the same level of cold symptoms as a woman, will dramatize his sniffles as if they were a far more serious ailment.

"The man-flu is best described as a hangover that's supposed to make you feel bad for him," Leanne said.

Another hallmark of the man-flu is its propensity to bring forth a double standard when it comes to sickness between the sexes. While a man with the flu may regard it as his right to camp out in front of the television and sleep for days -- perhaps even skipping showers and the toothbrush -- women may be expected to soldier through the flu, carrying out their daily routines.

Worse, any favors asked of a victim of man-flu likely evokes a perfectly rehearsed sequence of grotesque moans, followed by a dramatic series of short coughs and then a reminder that he has come down with an ailment that has never been seen.

But while some women may claim to be able to call their husbands' bluffs, some experts say there may be a bit of truth to the man-flu theory.

Do Men With Colds Feel Worse?

Dr. Charles Raison, clinical director of the Mind/Body Program at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, said that while features used to describe man-flu are at times exaggerated, men may indeed experience some physical effects of illness differently than women.

"There's a lot of evidence to suggest that women are more [emotionally] sensitive than men," said Raison. "But what's interesting is that we see men at one of their most vulnerable moments when sick."

He added that there is no hard evidence that proves a difference between how men and women experience colds. But according to Raison, studies have shown that while women are more likely to experience depression under emotional stress, men are most vulnerable when they are sick.

"There is stronger association between sickness systems in the body and depression in men than women," said Raison. "This may support why men have a rougher time than women."

Getting Even With the Man

There may also be a social basis for the idea of man-flu. Armond Aserinsky, a clinical psychologist who has spent more than a decade focusing on exploring the psychology of partners in marriage, said that however amusing it may be to ridicule a man, man-flu can also be seen as an intentional tactic of dethroning the stereotypical idea of a man.

"I think that one of the things that our society has developed is a form of humor that mocks the people that have the power," said Aserinsky. "I think we still live in a society where the sex roles are still divided and man-flu is a tactic to mock the idea of the head of household."

Dr. Donna Hoban, senior vice president and director of medical services and a family medicine specialist at William Beaumont Hospitals, said man-flu is less about the physical mechanisms and scientific data and more about society's view on gender roles.

"Men have to be strong and tough, that's what our society would say," said Hoban. "And all of a sudden when they're sick, it allows them a short opportunity to be vulnerable."

It's Just a Cold, Honey

Leanne recalled times when both she and her husband, who have been married for six years, had come down with a cold. He stayed in bed, she said, while she took care of their two children. However, Leanne said, her husband refused to take medication or see a doctor when she agreed that his case may be more serious than hers.

"I think my husband doesn't get sick very often," she said. "But when he does get the one or two big colds, he milks it for all it's worth."

According to Aserinsky, even men who are normally tough do not feel threatened by making their cold symptoms known.

"The cold can make you miserable without being threatening, so a man can give into that," Aserinsky said.

Many men may deny larger health concerns out of fear that they may find something more serious, Aserinsky said. So some men view a cold as a safer form of illness.

"It's a very funny form of cowardice, and it's paradoxical to make a big thing out of a head cold," he said. "You can wallow in that misery without any serious risk."

And the man-flu is not only a term used between spouses. Leanne said her father and brother also claim to feel so over the top that her mother waits on them hand and foot.

"They just lie in the bed with their arms outstretched like death might greet them at any moment," she said.

A Upside to Man-Flu?

While there is no evidence suggesting whether or why men suffer worse physical symptoms than women when hit by the cold, Hoban said one of the many benefits of man-flu is that men take the time to rest and fully recover from their ailment while many women may not. Perhaps more women should take note, she said.

"I think it's instinctual for women to be nurturing and caregivers," said Hoban. "I think most women do it willingly, then go downstairs and joke about it."

Raison agreed that while cold symptoms may feel uncomfortable for both men and women, a man may take the advantage of a woman's willingness to care for him while he is sick.

"Maybe women shouldn't be so surprised that men are so vulnerable," said Raison.

But for Leanne, who says she will inevitably endure many more cases of man-flu, she can't help but wish she could tell her husband, "Buck up, buttercup."


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