The days are drawing shorter, the air is growing colder, and man’s greatest fear is creeping ever nearer.
Yes, the first half of November marks a two-week period when Britons are most likely to catch a cold – and for men, that means man flu could be lurking just the other side of the bedroom door. The effects of this grievous, pernicious malady are not to be underestimated. It strikes with military accuracy, consigning even the strongest of men to the couch for an entire day – or more.
Soon after exposure to this microbial mugger, your life descends into a miserable whirlwind of daytime television, Lemsip Max and phlegm. You find that the symptoms of your condition are wildly exacerbated by a lack of either sympathy or chicken soup, and brought to a fever pitch in the presence of those who tell you that your life-threatening illness is ‘probably just a cold’.
‘Pah!’, you try to respond – but the sound gets muddled in your mucus-lined throat, mutating into a mucky, muddy ‘Paaagglhh!’ You lie back on the sofa and shed a tear for yourself and for your maligned gender (but mainly for yourself).
But let’s hold on. Before we can lay out a foolproof guide for avoiding the dreaded manflu this winter, it would appear that we need to first unequivocally prove its existence in the eyes of the fairer sex. For the Oxford Dictionary shockingly classifies the noun ‘man flu’ not only as “informal”, but also “humorous”.
“A cold or similar minor ailment,” the definition continues, “as experienced by a man – who is regarded as exaggerating the severity of the symptoms.”
‘How can this be so?’, I hear the previously stricken amongst you call. Leprosy and smallpox are recognised by the World Health Organisation as two of the planet’s most serious health concerns, but the pestilence they call masculine influenza is not?
Professor John Oxford is a highly regarded virologist and leading expert on all things flu. Whilst he asserts that “both sexes are infected the same way – by ingesting small droplets that contain the virus after they are expelled from the nose or throat of a sufferer through sneezing or coughing,” Oxford does acknowledge that other factors can distinguish the male influenza experience from the female.
“Socially, there are differences in the way that men and women perceive and experience flu. However, these differences have precious little to do with the virology of the disease. When men are ill, they tend to need to be looked after and cosseted by their partners more than women do. Additionally, women are more likely to have got the flu jab to begin with.
“In every country that I know of, women are better at looking after their health and have higher hygiene standards than men.”
However, despite the consensus in the medical community being that man flu is caused not by a biological difference between men and women, but rather a psychological one, Professor Oxford acknowledges that there is a precedence for ailments affecting one sex more detrimentally than the other.
“Two viruses come to mind, but they cause extra problems in women, not men. Hepatitis E affects pregnant women worse than men and Fulminant Hepatitis B affects women in general worse than men.”
Sarah Payne is a Professor in Health Policy and Gender at the University of Bristol. She too recognises that both biological and social differences play their parts in affecting how different genders experience sickness.
“There are a number of conditions that are experienced differently by women and men,” explains Payne. “One sex may be more at risk due to genetic influences or differences related to hormonal factors and the reproductive system.
“Leprosy and smallpox are recognised by the World Health Organisation as two of the planet’s most serious health concerns, but the pestilence they call masculine influenza is not?”
“For most diseases, however, the explanation for differences between men and women is a mixture of both sex and gender. For example, biological factors may influence susceptibility or prognosis, but the social discourses of gender also play a part. From access to resources and cultural responsibilities to an individual’s expectations of themselves and their expectations of others, these different behaviours can certainly have an effect on the infected.”
So, despite there not being any chromosomal evidence that the cold and flu viruses attack the male body with more ferocity than the female, there are clear social indicators to suggest we have it harder. We’re less likely to initially get vaccinated and less hygienic than the average woman – although we do appear to be predisposed to wallowing.
And there’s absolutely nothing we can do about any of those things – we’re innately and irreversibly wired that way. There are, however, pre-emptive steps that may be taken to reduce the chances of being struck by the virus in the first place.
Dr Ben Marshall is a respiratory specialist with a sub-specialist interest in infection at the University Hospital of Southampton. I picked his brains about influenza, and he shared with me the best ways to combat the contagion.
simple measure, Dr Marshall extols the virtue of sensible distance – ie no hugging your significant sniffly other, no high-fiving your headachy mate and definitely no comforting your congested kids. Stay away from all signs of cold and flu for their good as well as yours.
A simple measure, Dr Marshall extols the virtue of sensible distance – ie no hugging your significant sniffly other, no high-fiving your headachy mate and definitely no comforting your congested kids. Stay away from all signs of cold and flu for their good as well as yours.
For, whilst they may miss you for the duration of their illness, the alternative is much worse. Catch the basic bug off your nearest and dearest and you will require them all to be at your beck and call 24/7; on hand with unerring empathy, cups of tea and a steady supply of fresh tissues.
Wash your hands
Another obvious one, keep your hands clean and you’re less likely to transmit the virus into your body through touching of the eyes or mouth. Dr Marshall even suggests the use of an alcohol gel to really take those manflu microbes to church.
But be mindful – not everyone will heed this warning, as there still seems to be some men free today who don’t understand what those round, white porcelain bowls under the mirrors in toilets are. And, thanks to them, that means nothing is safe. Door handles, handrails, payphones and even traffic light buttons could be swarming with the man flu virus, so take heed and never pass a sink without using it.
Use a handkerchief
The humble hankie has the potential to save your other brothers from a week of plague-like pain – hopefully a favour they’ll return. By kick-starting a culture of sneezing and coughing politely into tissues and handkerchiefs, we’ll all be better off in the long run, leaving our air mercifully fresh by condemning the manflu virus to a Kleenexy grave.
Get your seven hours
Studies have shown that the immune system can be severely compromised if you don’t get enough sleep. So, be this for a minor ailment such as the common cold or female influenza, or a sickness on the scale of man flu, getting your recommended seven hours is a must if you intend to avoid ailments.
There are those who fidget and fuss at the thought of spending too long in bed, deeming the extra hours a waste of time. However, forgo your shuteye at your own peril, because if your weakened immune system does contract the manflu virus, you’ll be seeing a lot more of that bed after all.
Have the vaccination
Dr Marshall considers the influenza vaccine the “best way to avoid catching flu in susceptible persons, such as the elderly, persons with medical illnesses such as chronic respiratory disease and young children”. However, the vaccine isn’t available to everyone – and herein lies the problem.
For if you’re not overweight, a pensioner or already battling a chronic health condition, you may not be eligible for the flu vaccination. And, as previously discussed, the manflu virus strikes all men equally – you can’t hide from these microbes behind your raw vegan protein shake and gym membership. If the vaccine is available, snap it up; if not, pray for mercy.
And, if all else fails and the man flu virus breaches your many lines of defence, all is not lost. For Dr Marshall has some sage suggestions about how to cope. “The simplest remedies are simple analgesics,” the doctor orders. “So paracetamol, or over the counter remedies available at local pharmacies. Make sure to keep well-hydrated and warm – wrap yourself up if you have to venture outdoors. And, in more severe cases, bed rest is the best recourse.
“Usually a self-limiting illness such as the flu will last no more than a week. So, after experiencing the aforementioned constellation of symptoms, most people will be back to normal in no time at all.”
Marshall may say that, but the affected week can often feel like a lifetime – spent snuffling and shuffling about your house feeling more rotten than a month-old tomato.
Far better to invest in some alcohol hand gel, a bumper box of tissues and make sure to get seven hours’ worth of forty winks a night. For only then will you build up the best defence against this terrible illness. Only then will you be able to stir from your deathbed, look up at your tearful (or possibly just exasperated) family and tell them that you did everything you could to combat the dreaded and very, very real manflu.