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The ‘man flu’ may be real. But many women don’t want to believe it

“I have a lot of trepidation about telling her I’m sick,” Chris Stanley says of his wife, Malia Scott. Barry Chin/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“Am I clammy?” “Do I feel hot?”

Malia Scott is not saying her husband is a hypochondriac. But when he gets the same illness the rest of the family has dealt with gracefully, his suffering is “always much more significant.”

There’s a lot of “drama,” she said. “And a lot of ‘feel my head.’ ”

Scott, a teacher from Dorchester, obliges when hubby asks, with a hand to his forehead, but she already knows the diagnosis: the “man flu.”

Few people on the planet are unfamiliar with the affliction, or at least its symptoms — the man with a cold, moaning, unable to get out of bed, needing care and attention and more aspirin and maybe another bowl of that chicken soup.


And every woman knows all this sound and fury signifies nothing but a peculiar mental weakness when it comes to even the mildest illness.

But wait. Does it really?

A bombshell report in the BMJ , a British medical journal, is questioning one of wifehood’s most treasured truths: that men, who would be unable to withstand labor pains, can’t handle the common cold, either.

Just in time for flu season,Canadian physician Kyle Sue’s scientific review raises this heretical possibility: “Men may not be exaggerating symptoms.”

Instead, Sue writes, men may “have weaker immune responses to viral respiratory viruses, leading to greater morbidity and mortality than seen in women.”

Sue, a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland, says he was tired of being accused of overreacting and decided to search existing literature on the topic to determine whether men really experience worse symptoms.

The answer seems to be yes, Sue wrote, although it should be noted that even the official news site of his own university says that while the research is “suggestive, it is not proven enough to be deemed definitive by the scientific community.”


“More research is needed to examine other differences between men and women,” the Memorial University Gazette wrote, “like smoking and drinking rates, or willingness to see a doctor in a timely manner.”

The study appeared in the BMJ’s annual Christmas issue, a mix of quirky comment articles, light-hearted features, and peer-reviewed original research. Despite the man flu study’s light tone, a BMJ spokeswoman said the publication does not publish spoofs, hoaxes, or fabricated studies.

“Christmas research articles go through our usual peer review process and are all ‘real’ scientific papers,” she wrote in an email to the Globe.

But many women in Boston don’t need further research telling them what they already know.

Kelley Tuthill — a former WCVB reporter now a vice president at Regis College — doesn’t buy the man flu notion.

“God help the man trying to get through ‘man flu’ with a wife who’s been through chemo,” said Tuthill, about to celebrate her 11th year of survival following breast cancer.

She described a familiar scenario: the kids get sick; then mom gets sick (but, importantly, still does the dishes and laundry and makes sure everyone gets to their sports games); then dad comes down with the illness, and his needs are so much greater than everyone else’s.

“When the ‘man flu’ comes,” Tuthill said, “you are at compassion fatigue.”

At this point in the game, the question of whether man flu is real is almost beside the point.


Society is too invested in it to let it go. Man flu is a full employment program for humorists.

There’s a “Man Flu” website mocking the condition. “Man Flu will normally initially present itself as a bit of a sniffle,” it reads. “At this stage you may find women become sarcastic, cold or unsympathetic towards you. This is simply a primitive defense mechanism ensuring that you keep your distance from them and therefore lessen the likelihood of them carrying the virus home to their husband or boyfriend.”

Comedian Ricky Gervais recently talked to Ellen DeGeneres about his case of the man flu. “I’m more than sick, Ellen,” he told her. “I’ve got one of the worst diseases on the planet. Man flu. Really bad.”

“It’s different from woman flu?” DeGeneres asked.

“When I’m ill, [my wife] Jane’s like Florence Nightingale,” Gervais said. “When Jane’s ill, I don’t know about it. She gets up, she goes to the doctor, she’s back before I’m up.”

But some men — like Chris Stanley, the husband of Malia Scott, the teacher from Dorchester — are afraid to tell their wives when the man flu strikes, their awful physical symptoms compounded by fear.

“I have a lot of trepidation about telling her I’m sick,” he confided.

At the first throat tickle, Stanley, an architect, thinks not about the comfort of a lozenge, but about convincing his wife his suffering is real. “I’m already thinking about how I’m going to put the thermometer against a light bulb,” he said.


Whether the study will improve gender-sick day relations is hard to tell. Sue, the doctor who did the study, said in an e-mail to the Globe that he’s had “support from both genders, and angry people from both genders.

“Some men called me their heroes. Some women called me sexist/misogynist. Likewise, there were men who thought I made the entire male gender look weak, and also called me sexist,” he said.

In Boston, Jason Feldman, the founder of Unwind Social, a social networking platform, has fully embraced his gendered illness.

“The ‘man flu’ got me really bad this year,” he said. His throat felt like it had been attacked by razor blades, he had chronic migraines. “My glands were golf balls.”

When the guys in the apartment downstairs offered him tickets to the Bruins — fifth row, on the corner, behind the net — he managed to rise from his sickbed to go to TD Garden and watch part of the game, an activity that took his mind off his maladies until the Washington Capitals started “killing” the Bruins, he said.

“Then the man flu came back tenfold.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell.