Unlocking the legend of the ‘man cold’

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Women have been saying it for years - Men complain more about being sick. The “man cold,” so the legend goes, is the same cold virus women get, but the men somehow experience more severe symptoms. Or the men say they do.

A recent study may support the theory. As in a medical study with actual science!

In December 2017, a Canadian researcher, Dr. Kyle Sue, published a study in the British Medical Journal that animal studies have shown that estrogen can boost the immune system. The study made international headlines, and outlets like the Today Show ran pieces exploring the issue further.

A WebMD feature on the topic also finds a few experts and research to back the idea that men can suffer more severe complications from flu viruses.

But before anyone blurts out an “I told you so!,” let’s see what a doctor thinks about this recent media splash.

Dr. Chad Scarola, a family medicine practitioner at Kootenai Clinic, weighed the research alongside his own experiences and suggested a more cautious response to the studies.

“I don’t think it’s any huge, obvious difference. I don’t see it enough to really consider it,” Scarola said. “I don’t know if there is enough good science there yet, but it might spur more research.”

Scarola did say the hormone response angle in the study warrants more consideration.

“It would make sense that cells respond differently under the influence of testosterone vs. estrogen,” he said.

Scarola suggested that the perceived existence of a man cold probably has more to do with personality than a biological immune response.

“I do have quite a few whiny men,” Scarola said with a laugh. “They don’t tend to handle it very well… I have had a lot of situations where men will come in with their wives, and she will complain about their husband’s behavior being sick.”

Some men also still have aversions to seeing doctors about common ailments, Scarola said.

“Men often do come in too late,” he said. “So many times a man will come in and their complaint to me is, ‘I’m only here because my wife told me to come in.”

“I saw that today - a man came in coughing and had a sinus infection for what turned out to be three weeks,” Scarola continued. “He looked absolutely miserable, and they always say the same thing - ‘I thought I could get over it.’”

That mentality could explain the research on higher mortality rates for men in flu and pneumonia cases, Scarola said. But doing a study on “stubborn rates” could prove complicated.

Scarola said that while many of his older male patients are better about preemptive care (like scheduling annual physicals), he does think younger men can sometimes take their health for granted when things are going well.

“You still bring in your car for an oil change if your car is running fine,” Scarola said. “You should come in for screenings and blood work while you are fine so you don’t have to wait for symptoms to develop, which can sometimes be too late.”

Whether it’s a man cold or a regular cold or flu, the most important thing to remember, regardless of gender, is to react to red flags. That means seeing a doctor for persistent symptoms, an unwavering high fever, or if you’re feeling lethargic or not fully alert.

“A lot of it is common sense - are you feeling how you normally feel when you have a cold, or do you feel like it’s something different? Look at if there is anything out of the ordinary for you,” Scarola said.

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