Queering The “Man Flu”

Men might be able to fight viruses by tricking them with estrogen.

Here on the ’net we may all be genderfluid bots sliding into one another’s DMs to share Maggie Nelson quotes, but in the science community, a hard “male” and “female” binary is still the premise for a lot of research. Take this recent study from Royal Holloway at the University of London, which claims the idea of “man-flu” may be explained by some hard science.

Man-flu is the idea that men respond to common cold symptoms in such an over-the-top way that it ends up being interpreted as something more intense and life-threatening—like influenza—by their families and doctors. The discussion to-date has largely focused on social factors. Basically, in Western culture we socialize men to not talk about their feelings — > this leads to low self-awareness when it comes to bodily sensations — > when something like a virus comes along, where symptoms might be clustered and difficult to pinpoint, male patients could interpret the illness as much more severe than it is — > the male patient ends up presenting what might seem to others like an overreaction (i.e., “I’m so congested I can’t get out of bed!”). But what if hormones also played a role?

Men are more likely than women to die if they are infected with certain kinds of viruses and bacteria, including chickenpox and tuberculosis. In fact, tuberculosis is one and a half times more fatal for men on the whole, according to the New Scientist. That difference in mortality rates often gets explained by saying high-estrogen-producing bodies have stronger immune systems—an idea that makes man-flu seem extremely viable—but according to the University of London’s findings, we may have come at that data from the wrong perspective and drawn an incomplete conclusion.

It turns out viruses may be evolving to “go easier” on women. In other words, the death rate disparity might not necessarily mean that high-estrogen-producing bodies have more powerful immune systems—viruses may actually be seeking them out as their ideal long-term homes. Why? Because if the virus can manage to live covertly inside of its host without killing her or ruining her life, maybe she will have a baby and pass it onto them during childbirth or breastfeeding. It’s certainly a more direct A-to-B route than hoping your host sneezes on a Subway pole or coughs onto a dollar bill. Assuming the University of London research ends up being conclusive, if we extend their logic, we could try to trick viruses into going easy on us by introducing more estrogen into an infected person’s body.

The team is still looking into how a virus might be able to detect a host’s hormone levels, and what mechanism would even make that possible, but according to researcher Vincent Jansen, the goal is to see if “we could try to make the virus think it’s in a female body rather than a male body and therefore take a different course of action.” Imagine being able to fight chicken pox itching with a quick estrogen supplement, or mono sleepiness. Could be cool!

So where does that leave the man-flu phenomenon? If viruses “go easy” on bodies that produce a lot of estrogen, could men really be experiencing more intense colds? Jansen says it’s unlikely, since mother-to-child transmission isn’t an important route for flu viruses specifically.

“To me, man-flu sounds like an excuse for men not to go to work,” he said. Damn.