Men not so macho about colds

October 29, 2008

Imagine for a moment that a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, hardened by four overseas deployments, has endured broken limbs and other serious injuries.

Yet, at the first sign of a cold, this trained soldier collapses into a pathetic and helpless pile.

Such a situation is nothing new for Leanne, who preferred that her last name not be disclosed. She said she is fascinated by how, at the first sign of a cold, her husband can turn from warrior to what she calls "wimp."

"My husband's been to war four times, and a simple head cold takes him down for the count," she said.

The phrase "man-flu", which is gaining popularity among American women, highlights the irony that a man with perhaps the same level of cold symptoms as a woman, will dramatize his sniffles as if they were a far more serious ailment.

"The man-flu is best described as a hangover that's supposed to make you feel bad for him," Leanne said.

Another hallmark of the man-flu is its propensity to bring forth a double standard when it comes to sickness between the sexes. While a man with the flu may regard it as his right to camp out in front of the television and sleep for days -- perhaps even skipping showers and the toothbrush -- women may be expected to soldier through the flu, carrying out their daily routines.

Worse, any favors asked of a victim of man-flu likely evokes a perfectly rehearsed sequence of grotesque moans, followed by a dramatic series of short coughs and then a reminder that he has come down with an ailment that has never been seen.

But while some women may claim to be able to call their husbands' bluffs, some experts say there may be a bit of truth to the man-flu theory.

Dr. Charles Raison, clinical director of the Mind/Body Program at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, said that while features used to describe man-flu are at times exaggerated, men may indeed experience some physical effects of illness differently than women.

"There's a lot of evidence to suggest that women are more [emotionally] sensitive than men," said Raison. "But what's interesting is that we see men at one of their most vulnerable moments when sick."

There may also be a social basis for the idea of man-flu.

Dr. Donna Hoban, senior vice president and director of medical services and a family medicine specialist at William Beaumont Hospitals, said man-flu is less about the physical mechanisms and scientific data and more about society's view on gender roles.

"Men have to be strong and tough, that's what our society would say," said Hoban. "And all of a sudden when they're sick, it allows them a short opportunity to be vulnerable."

Leanne recalled times when both she and her husband, who have been married for six years, had come down with a cold. He stayed in bed, she said, while she took care of their two children. However, Leanne said, her husband refused to take medication or see a doctor when she agreed that his case may be more serious than hers.

"I think my husband doesn't get sick very often," she said. "But when he does get the one or two big colds, he milks it for all it's worth."

According to one expert, even men who are normally tough do not feel threatened by making their cold symptoms known.

"The cold can make you miserable without being threatening, so a man can give into that," Aserinsky said.

Many men may deny larger health concerns out of fear that they may find something more serious, Aserinsky said. So some men view a cold as a safer form of illness.

"It's a very funny form of cowardice, and it's paradoxical to make a big thing out of a head cold," he said. "You can wallow in that misery without any serious risk."

While there is no evidence suggesting whether or why men suffer worse physical symptoms than women when hit by the cold, Hoban said one of the many benefits of man-flu is that men take the time to rest and fully recover from their ailment while many women may not. Perhaps more women should take note, she said.

Raison agreed that while cold symptoms may feel uncomfortable for both men and women, a man may take the advantage of a woman's willingness to care for him while he is sick.

"Maybe women shouldn't be so surprised that men are so vulnerable," said Raison.

But for Leanne, who says she will inevitably endure many more cases of man-flu, she can't help but wish she could tell her husband, "Buck up, buttercup."

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