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The Truth About Man Flu

New study investigated whether men suffer more from the common cold than women

Almost everyone gets sick every once in a while. How much we suffer when being sick does not only depend on the severity of the disease. It is – to a rather large extent – also determined by several psychological factors. These include things like individual pain thresholds, personality factors like neuroticism and individual learning history (e.g. what our parents consciously or unconsciously taught us about how to behave when being sick).

One common idea about how much someone suffers from less dangerous diseases like the common cold is the concept of the so-called “man flu”. Broadly spoken, “man flu” refers to the idea that gender could affect the amount of suffering when being sick. It is assumed that compared to women, men tend to exaggerate their symptoms. Also, men are thought to show an exaggerated amount of psychological distress from comparatively mild symptoms.

The important question is: Is there any scientific basis for the man flu or is this just a myth?

A new study from Utrecht University in the Netherlands now investigated this question (Lutgerink, 2019). Entitled “Sex differences in the severity and number of common cold symptoms”, the study focused on analyzing the data from the Pittsburgh Common Cold Project, a dataset that contains information on biological measures of common cold infections, as well as psychological and social factors, from volunteers between 18 and 55 years.

In the study, 438 volunteers that suffered from the common cold were investigated. 52.1% were men and 47.9% were women. The sick volunteers had to report on eight different symptoms: nasal congestion, sneezing, runny nose, sore throat, cough, headache, chills, and malaise. For each volunteer, the number of experienced symptoms was counted. Moreover, the volunteers had to rate their own perceived symptom severity of each symptom on a scale between 0 (no symptoms at all) to 4 (very severe symptoms).

What were the results?

In general, the severity of common cold symptoms was rather low in the investigated volunteers. Also, there was no statistically significant association between gender and symptom severity. This shows that men and women perceive common cold symptoms as equally severe or non-severed and men do not feel like their symptoms or worse compared to women. Moreover, there was no statistically significant association between gender and the number of experienced symptoms. Thus, men and women experience the same average number of common cold symptoms.

What do we learn from this?

The results clearly show that men and women do not differ in the number and the severity of self-reported common cold symptoms. While it would be good to have more scientific studies in diverse populations on this topic, the results of this study clearly suggest that the idea of the “man flu” is a myth that is not supported by scientific evidence.

References

Lutgerink, E. (2019). Sex differences in the severity and number of common cold symptoms. Bachelor thesis. Utrecht University. Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences.

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