'Man flu' is now a thing. We're not so sure about it

Canadian professor Dr. Kyle Sue was "tired of being accused of over-reacting" when he gets sick so wrote about it in an unreliable story.

'Man flu' is now a thing. We're not so sure about it

Health and Safety

'Man flu' is now a thing. We're not so sure about it


A man named Sue — or to be more accurate — an academic named Kyle Sue, assistant professor of family medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada, is taking on the battle of defending every man’s weak immune system.

This phenomena is also known as men’s wimpy abilities to just…deal.

I don’t know about your spouses, but just about every time my husband sneezes and gets a temp of 99 degrees, he thinks he’s dying.


Credit: Giphy

I’ll get the same cold, rest for half a day (if I’m lucky) and then I’m on my merry way, back to kicking butts and taking names.

I still nurture my husband.

He gets cozy blankets and orange juice and chicken noodle soup, but do I believe it’s as bad as he’s making it out to be? Not so much.

If Sue is right about this, it turns out I may owe my hubby an apology. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

First, let’s break down what “man flu” is

Credit: Giphy

According to the Oxford English Dictionary “man flu” is a “humorous, informal” noun. It means a “cold or similar minor ailment as experienced by a man who is regarded as exaggerating the severity of the symptoms.”

So no, it’s not a real term, nor is it scientifically or medically associated to influenza. Your fellas don’t need to rush out and get a “man flu” shot each year. Because, again, it’s not real.

Sue said he was “tired of being accused of over-reacting” when he gets sick. So he wrote a satirical article in the Christmas edition of the BMJ, (formerly the British Medical Journal.) His goal: seek out scientific reasons why men might actually experience illness more intensely.

Sue told All the Moms, “It’s all serious research and reviews and real evidence” cited in the studies.

But while the science is very real, Sue’s commentary in the article is often not. And he plays off the typical male stereotype.

Credit: Giphy

His proof

1. Female hormones may boost immunity, while testosterone could lower the immune system’s ability to fight off certain illnesses.

Basically, men and women are built differently, therefore their biological responses to the flu will be different. 

According to BMJ, “Several studies show that female mice have higher immune responses than males. This led to the hypothesis that sex dependent hormones have an important role in outcomes of influenza.

The report goes on to say, “Studies of influenza vaccination suggest that women are more responsive to vaccination than men. This is supported by the finding that women report more local and systemic reactions to influenza vaccine than men in questionnaires. One study noted that men with higher testosterone levels had more down regulation of antibody response to vaccination, suggesting an immunosuppressive role for testosterone.”

You can read the studies cited by BMJ here, herehere and here.

2. Men are more likely to be hospitalized or die from the flu.

Under the section titled “Immunity Gap,” Sue has this to say:

“Some evidence clearly supports men having higher morbidity and mortality from viral respiratory illness than women because they have a less robust immune system. However, conclusions may be limited by author bias, inclusion of some low level evidence, and not reporting a critical appraisal of the studies cited.

“Additionally, ” he writes, “the differences observed in these studies may not be representative of all respiratory viruses, and differences may be hidden within studies that did not stratify the various viruses or other differences between the sexes.”

Read the study cited by BMJ here.

3. Studies show women are more likely to wash their hands, which is a massive force in stopping the contraction of colds and flus. 

This was not mentioned directly in the BMJ article but brought up by various other sources including Business Insider, which cited the study by the American Association for Microbiology, when examining the claims made by Sue.

Study by the American Association for Microbiology 

Sue cites studies that:

  • Some of the research is taken on very small sample sizes
  • Were inconclusive: Sue himself admits that more science and research needs to be done: “Further higher quality research is needed to clarify other aspects of man flu. It remains uncertain whether viral titres, immune response, symptoms, and recovery time can be affected by environmental conditions.”
  • The Big One: It is a “lighthearted” article not intended as a conclusive study or statement

If you don’t believe it, take a gander at this line from BMJ – “Another potential study may examine whether men with robust immune systems are less successful at mating compared with those with weaker immune systems and correspondingly higher testosterone. In other words, can the blame for man flu be shifted to the people who select these men as sexual partners rather than the men themselves?”

In talking to All the Moms, Sue said he was not expecting this response from the public. He assumed some people would find it funny and get a laugh from it, but now he’s done about 120 interviews, the phone is ringing off the hook all hours of the day and he finds it all “more annoying than anything.”

What does it come down to?

While there is some science to back up that men may experience worse symptoms, I’m not so sure I owe anyone any apologies just yet.

Sue agreed with me on the phone that “more research needs to be done to conclude anything” but with that said, he also had this serious point to make, “It really is important to present this information to the public because it could have a big impact on how we do things.”

He went on to give the example that, “Right now a lot of medications are only tested on men … So is it fair to use medications on women that have only been tested on men? I’m not so sure about that.”

Credit: Giphy

Luckily, my husband has a phobia about germs and goes through pounds of antibacterial soap by the week, but maybe the next time your spouse or son is glued to the couch claiming death by flu, remind him to wash his hands more, bring him a snuggly blanket and love them anyway. Wimpy and all.

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