Backed Up by Science: Why Men Are Babies When They're Sick

When it comes to the concept of men versus women, there are multiple stereotypes that set us apart from one another (which we can see by looking through a binary lens). In society, men are generally associated with masculinity, toughness, and intensity; women, on the other hand, are generally associated with femininity, gentleness, and peace. However, the line is drawn within the battle of the sexes when the following topic arises in debate: how each gender deals with sickness.


Have you ever noticed that, compared to women, men tend to look sicker (or even act sicker) once they have contracted a virus? It makes you wonder whether they are totally faking it or exaggerating their condition to be further coddled. This was an issue that highly interested me and my inner forensic scientist persona that I put on the back-burner with my most recent major change to English… no worries, there will be an article covering that later.


So, in honor of the fall (and flu) season coming our way, I decided to explore why men are babies when they are sick… and, best of all, the few working theories that are backed up by science!

man and woman holding handsFirst and foremost, the term “man flu” is defined by a contributor on the ever-reliable Urban Dictionary as “the condition shared by all males wherein a common illness (usually a mild cold) is presented by patient as life-threatening. This is also known as ‘Fishing for Sympathy’ or ‘Chronic Exaggeration.’” (1) In other words, “man flu” refers to the theory of men exaggerating symptoms of minor illnesses, such as a cold.

Scientists have been intrigued by this phenomenon over the years and have even completed different studies in an attempt to answer the overarching question of “why?”

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Theory #1:  Men are more at-risk creatures

It may come as no surprise that men are reportedly more involved in risk-taking behavior. The University of Cambridge released a 2010 study that explained how their researchers found weaker immune systems among men due to the fact that most men in the United States not only do not wash their hands as often as they should, but they also do not have an annual check-up with their doctors. (2)

Although these behaviors are important to look at, the real problem very well may be taking place inside the male body (without their control!).

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Theory #2:  Let's talk about sex (hormones)

Another hypothesis was crafted by Dr. Sabra Klein—Associate Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health—who states that “estrogen-based compounds [make] it harder for a flu virus to infect...samples” (2). This conclusion was made following her own study on human cells back in 2015. However, because these human cells were experimented on within a laboratory, there is not strong enough proof that women are less likely to contract the flu or any other cold-like illness.

Klein relates sex hormones with our abilities to fight off viruses by claiming that “male immune cells have more active receptors for certain pathogens” (2). She goes on to explain how it is our immune response, rather than the actual presence of the microbe or virus, that leads to our sickness. She further contends, “[R]esearch shows that males have a heightened response that summons cells to the site of infection, which contributes to the overall feeling of sickness.” In other words, because there is a difference in immune cell response among men and women, the concept of the “man flu” becomes clearer and easier to understand.

Male and female immune cells do not react the same way to invading viruses; therefore, it makes sense for there to be a difference in how men and women physically appear and act when under the weather.

men's fashionEven though research for this debatable topic has not yet been solidified, there holds a promise that a concrete answer will be provided for us in the future. In the meantime, before you tell your guy friend, brother, father, or even your boyfriend to “buck up” when they have succumbed to the flu, try to remember that it may not be entirely their fault.


If all else fails, blame the testosterone!