Do men and women experience flu differently?

Man sneezing on a bus He will be in bed soon with a damp towel on his brow...

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Are men unfairly castigated for having "man flu" and running to their sick beds at the merest sign of a sniffle?

Research suggests that women are at greater risk of getting flu than men because they tend to spend more time around children, who are more likely to have a flu-like illness in the first place.

A nationwide flu survey carried out by London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine during last winter found that women were 16% more likely to say they had flu symptoms.

So is it really women who are making all the fuss about being unwell?

This winter, the online flu survey is up and running again and aiming to find out the answer.

Start Quote

Men think they are going to die when they are unwell, so they go to bed and expect women to look after them”

End Quote Prof John Oxford Virology expert

The survey needs people of all ages around the country to report any flu-like symptoms by filling in an online questionnaire.

This data will be used to map the spread of flu across the country during the winter.

Researchers can then analyse how the virus spreads and who it affects.

How ill?

Dr Alma Adler, who runs the project, says they wanted to find out more about gender differences and flu in this year's survey.

"We haven't found any evidence of 'man flu' yet.

"The biggest risk factor is having children under the age of 18 and for this reason women are more at risk of flu.

"This year we have included some new questions, such as 'How bad do you feel?'

"People can answer on a number scale of one to 10."

What is flu?

How an influenza virus particle might look
  • Flu is a respiratory illness linked to infection by the influenza virus.
  • Symptoms usually include headache, fever, cough, sore throat, aching muscles and joints.
  • Influenza occurs most often in winter and usually peaks between December and March.
  • The virus was first identified in 1933.
  • There are two main types that cause infection: influenza A and influenza B
  • New strains of the virus are constantly emerging, which is why the flu vaccine should be given each year.

This is the crucial part, asking people how they feel when they have flu, by delving into the psychology of illness - not just the science.

'More sensitive'

And that could help scientists discover if men and women experience flu differently.

John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary, University of London, says there is no scientific evidence for "man flu" but there is a difference in behaviour.

"We know that women react differently to infection. They are more sensitive to their health. Men bluster around a bit.

"So there are differences in how men and women perceive illness and then differences in behaviour.

"Men think they are going to die when they are unwell, so they go to bed and expect women to look after them."

Dr Douglas Fleming, from the Royal College of GPs' flu research unit, says there is no rule when it comes to how flu viruses affect people.

"Every flu virus is different. It depends on the strain. We don't know ahead of time how it will affect people.

"Different viruses affect men, women and children differently."

Weaker sex

Previous research from the University of Cambridge came to a different conclusion.

It found evidence that women were better at fighting infections than men.

Man getting the seasonal flu jab The over-65s are among those entitled to a free flu jab

Evolutionary factors and hormonal differences were thought to make males more susceptible to infection than females.

In the animal world too, across a range of species, males tend to be the "weaker sex" in terms of immune defences, the Cambridge research team said.

This would back up the argument that "man flu" exists because men would be more susceptible to viruses and therefore more likely to be unwell.

But if children are the main sufferers and harbourers of influenza, spreading it to their parents and grandparents, then won't mothers automatically be in the firing line?

Prof Oxford says men will still be infected just as much.

"If the parents are sleeping together in the same bed, spending at least eight hours in the same room sharing pillows, then the flu virus will soon move on to the husband."

Unpredictable

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) started its weekly monitoring of flu activity in the UK population in October.

So far this winter, the number of people with flu symptoms going to see their GP is low (6.9 per 100,000 in England).

This could explain why just 65% of those aged over 65 and 32% of pregnant women have taken up the offer of a flu vaccine.

Dr Richard Pebody, head of seasonal flu surveillance at the HPA, said they are hoping this winter will mirror last winter's trend.

"The 2011/2012 flu season was one of the lowest on record - following two years of high flu activity, including the 2009 flu pandemic. This demonstrates how unpredictable the flu season can be."

Whether you are a man or a woman, there is a chance you could be infected by the flu virus in the coming months.

If you are in any of the "at risk" groups, the key is to be protected in advance by getting the flu jab.

Then keep a box of tissues and a hot water bottle handy.

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