Have You Heard? This Guy Has a Cold

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I, personally, do not complain much when I get sick. It’s true that I provide for the people around me running updates about the type and quality of my illness, the intensity and character of its effects, the particular sounds of the cough, the volumes and colors of phlegm discharge and my own feelings about all of the above. But these communiqués, whether sent as text messages or shouted at my girlfriend from across the apartment, are useful news bulletins, provided in the spirit of CDC alerts. They’re not complaints. Me? I don’t complain. I update.

My girlfriend, oddly, disagrees. So do, as it happens, millions of unfortunately partnered heterosexual women around the world. “Men 10,000 percent are babies about getting sick,” one female friend told me recently. “It’s like no one has ever been sick before.” Everyone seems to agree: Men are drama queens about illness. When my girlfriend’s mother heard that I was looking into what she calls the Mancold, she insisted she be interviewed to provide cross-generational testimony to its existence. “We all roll our eyes when the Mancold comes calling,” she said. “All activities come to a halt, and, much like sports, there is a continuous update, sighing and groaning.” Under the name “Man Flu,” the phenomenon has entered the Oxford English Dictionary (“A cold or similar minor ailment as experienced by a man who is regarded as exaggerating the severity of the symptoms”), though all things considered I suggest the more clinical and less judgmental term “Masculine Flu Drama Syndrome.”

The most common theory about MFDS is that it represents a kind of inversion of gender roles. “It’s hard for men to express weakness, so when science says we have a reason, we really lean into it,” my friend Matt, who works in IT at a major hospital — and is therefore something of a medical expert — suggested. A gay friend theorized that the same dynamic can exist even in same-sex relationships. “The dominant male in the relationship does like to subvert the traditional roles and be doted on and cared for for a few days,” he told me. “Have you seen ‘Phantom Thread’? The whole movie is about this.”

But this seems to take for granted that men are generally not complainers. Isn’t it possible that men are simply more fragile and more dramatic in all situations? “I just whine more in general, so, yes,” one writer I know admitted when I asked if he complained about the flu more than his girlfriend. (As one of many recipients of his sickness-related personal updates throughout this year’s flu season, I can confirm.) Women, meanwhile, are natural stoics, blessed with psychological strength.

“Women complain less in general,” a friend who works in television production theorized, “because we know we have to give birth someday, so we implicitly understand real pain.” (Her girlfriend, a musician, nevertheless says “I’m a terrible person when I’m sick.”)

But perhaps this is not a question of psychology at all. “Like, what does it mean to be sick?” my friend Keenan asked. “People think this is question for hard biological science, but I think it’s more suited for philosophy.” I don’t disagree. Men are fatally insecure creatures, in constant need of external validation of their feelings; for us, sickness can represent an existential crisis. If a man is sick by himself, and there is no one for him to complain to, was he really sick at all?

Or if not a question of biology or philosophy, perhaps a question of more, uh, esoteric sciences? “The metaphysical cause for influenza,” my friend Katie, an aspiring tarot-card reader, explained to me, citing the New Age self-help author Louise Hay, “is ‘response to mass negativity and beliefs. Fear. Belief in statistics.’” And if anyone enjoys a statistic, it’s men.

But as intrigued as I am by philosophical and woo-woo causes of disease, my own theories about the Man Flu have always tended toward the biological. (I’m not technically a doctor, but I’ve spent enough time in quiet study on WebMD’s Symptom Checker website to have developed as sophisticated an understanding of immunology as the medical elitists who demand “degrees” and “credentials” and “empirical evidence.”) Until I started researching the question, my theory went something like this: Men are, on average, physically stronger than women; as a man, my immune system must also be stronger. The colds and flu strains strong enough to defeat my ripped-as-hell-six-pack of an immune system must be real doozies (to use the medical term). If my body is Rome, it’s going to take a Visigoth army of a flu to sack it, and it’s going to be looted and pillaged for days.

But as it turns out, my body is less like a fortified imperial city and more like an oddly shaped and somewhat muddy field, easily entered and occupied by armies of basically any size. Several recent studies indicate that women’s immune systems are generally stronger than men’s, thanks (it’s theorized) to differences in how estrogen and testosterone regulate inflammation and the production of antibodies. A recent survey of related literature in the British Medical Journal notes that some data indicates that men are more likely to be hospitalized from the flu — and more likely to die.

This revelation will likely be as shocking to you as it was to me. How could men, who have evolved the innate biological ability to reach the top shelf and open jars, be weaker than women? But there is no arguing around science. Men suffer worse from illness, and women, blessed by the creator with immunological fortitude, must be their protectors and caretakers. Such is the burden of the stronger sex.