Here’s Why Women Handle Sickness Better Than Men

Kirsten Curtis |

Does the “man flu” actually exist?

Man flu, as described by an enthusiastic Urban Dictionary contributor, is “the condition shared by all males wherein a common illness (usually a mild cold) is presented by the patient as life-threatening. This is also known as ‘Fishing for Sympathy’ or ‘Chronic Exaggeration.’”

Joking aside, this belief isn’t new: “Man flu” refers to the theory that men get sicker (or perhaps just act sicker) than women when they contract an illness—but a recent study suggests that men might not be faking it. When Canadian researchers exposed mice to bacteria that catalyze a flu-like illness, male mice suffered with more symptoms, like body temperature fluctuations, fever, and inflammation. Not only that, but they took longer to recover, too.

To be clear, animal studies don’t necessarily mean the same effects could be replicated on humans, but the findings suggest that gender differences might play a role in the way your body responds to illness. There are a few ways these differences could manifest: Some scientists speculate that sex hormones influence your immune system. For example, a recent analysis of human cells suggests that estrogen compounds could make it more difficult for viruses to attack cells—but that study was done on cells in a lab, not on actual humans. While it isn’t strong enough to prove that women are less likely to contract the flu, it might warrant a deeper look into women’s natural resistance to infection, the study authors say. High testosterone levels can also weaken your immune response, according to a Stanford University study.

“It isn’t always the presence of the microbe or the presence of the virus that makes us sick,” Sabra Klein, associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told TIME. “It’s our immune response, and the research shows that males have a heightened response that summons cells to the site of infection, which contributes to the overall feeling of sickness.”

Studies also show that men are more reckless and have a tendency to skip out on their annual checkup, so lots of individual factors could impact what people call the “man flu.” While more research needs to be done to understand just how big of an impact gender makes on your body’s ability to fight sickness, the current compilation of research suggests the link is there—remember that next time your girlfriend rags on you for taking a sick day.

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