Cold comfort for men struck down with flu

Tue, Nov 25, 2008, 00:00

There is no evidence to suggest that a man's cold is any worse than a woman's - no biological or biochemical differences, writes Michael Kelly

I HAVE A flu. Septic throat, fever, blocked nose, headache, rasping cough, swollen glands and all manner of other flu-like symptoms. "That's a terrible cold you have," says my better half sympathetically.

"It's not a cold," I say, "it's the flu."

She gives me that look - you know the one, that maddening look that only wives can pull off that says "we both know it's not the flu but we will call it a flu if that makes you feel better".

I take to the bed for a couple of days rising only occasionally to move to the couch to watch some TV from under a duvet. I do feel terrible but there's a little part of me (whisper it) that feels it's not too shabby to be getting away from the rigours of everyday life for a little while.

Of course, I would never admit that to anyone because that would be like saying you are enjoying the flu and people would say - oh you could never enjoy the flu so it must be a cold.

Meanwhile, I continue to be demanding, whiney and generally impossible to be around.

A few days later, the tables are turned. I am up and about again and feeling chipper but Mrs Kelly has come down with what appears to be the same dose.

She seems to have all the same symptoms and doses herself with drugs but (maddeningly) she doesn't take to the bed. She struggles on resolutely with her daily routine stopping occasionally to tell me how miserable she feels. "I think I have that dose that you had," she says collapsing into a fit of coughing.

"It can't be," I reply. "If you had my flu, you would be in bed."

There is a terribly insulting saying (insulting for men at any rate) that gets bandied around which I am sure you have heard - children get colds, men get flu and women just get on with it.

According to the stereotype, when women get a cold they feel terrible for a few days but they battle on with their lives, balancing work and family commitments with steely determination and wondering how they will get though the week.

When men get the same cold, we hit the sack immediately and call it a flu so that we will get more sympathy and because a "cold" doesn't sound macho enough.

There's a hilarious video on You Tube which sends up the stereotype perfectly and has been downloaded over 3.5 million times to date. A guy lies on a couch looking like he's half dead. He has a cold. He calls his wife (who also has a cold) to bring him soup and when she doesn't come immediately he calls 999.

Two male paramedics rush in to the house to tend to him. "I'm a bit confused," says his wife. "Hasn't he just got a cold?" The paramedic glares at her. "For God's sake, woman. He's a man. He has a Man Cold."

Does the man cold exist? Is there any medical science that gives credence to men's assertions that their colds are infinitely worse than women's? Sorry guys, but no, not really.

According to Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP)spokesman Dr Mel Bates there is no evidence to suggest that the man cold is any worse than its female counterpart.

"You certainly can't put it down to any biological or biochemical differences between the two sexes," he says, "and there is no physical difference in how a cold or flu plays out in a man or woman."

Damn. Perhaps there is a chink of light in the psychology of the situation? A study by Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, for example, found that when they are sick men seem to be more vulnerable than women, and in that heightened emotional state our symptoms may appear worse to us than they really are.

Psychologists also believe that a trivial illness like a cold allows men the opportunity to briefly cast aside their manly image and show a less macho side - that it's a "safe" illness that allows us to ham it up with impunity.

Dr Gary Donohoe, a lecturer in clinical psychology at Trinity College Dublin, believes the psychology of the situation may be linked to the importance men attach to their jobs.

"We won't admit to colleagues that a little thing like a cold can get us down. We still identify ourselves strongly with our occupational roles and feel the need to justify the time away from work.

"Afraid of seeming like a wimp, or being perceived as not taking our roles seriously, we need things to sound more serious and so colds become 'really bad colds' or flu instead."

There's a tragic irony in this for men of course. According to the "man cold" stereotype, men are certifiable hypochondriacs, rolling around like babies at the first sight of a sniffle.

But in general when it comes to health, men are notoriously reluctant to access healthcare services out of fear that we might find something serious wrong.

"These are mixed messages for men," says Bates. "On the one hand we are constantly telling men to come in and see their doctor and to stop being so macho. On the other hand, if men complain about being ill when they have a cold or flu, we are telling them to stop being so wimpish. We can't win."

Incidentally, Bates is a fan of the Man Cold video, but he doesn't believe the picture of men that it portrays. "I enjoy the piece because it's such a brilliant caricature. There's always a bit of truth in these things and no doubt there are some women who handle symptoms of colds and flu and illness in general better than men.

"But to say that it's that way across the board is just not true. There is no evidence for that, it's just an opinion."

Senior lecturer in Women's Studies at UCD Ursula Barry believes the stereotype has its origin in a type of society that has long since disappeared.

"I think the thing was that women had primary responsibility for childcare in the home and they had those responsibilities regardless of whether they were ill. I think that is where the stereotype of the woman battling on through an illness comes from.

"The reality is that there is a shift there now and both partners are likely to be in paid employment so if someone is at home sick, they are likely to be on their own anyway."

While keen to emphasise that her own husband is not the type of man that might get a "man cold", the Labour Party's spokeswoman on Health, Jan O'Sullivan TD, believes there is an element of truth behind the stereotype.

"I think that men do want to be mollycoddled and showered with tender loving care when they are sick and that's okay," she says. "I don't know whether it's to do with childbirth or what, but I do think that women have a higher pain threshold when it comes to these things."

The pain threshold argument is another common element to the man cold debate. Bates doesn't buy it.

"When someone says that an individual has a lower pain threshold than someone else, that's purely an opinion of the observer. There is no evidence that men have a lower pain threshold - that is purely an impression."

Perhaps we will give the last word on what constitutes a "trivial" illness to Bates. "As a trainee GP I remember remarking to my trainer that I was irritated by people coming to me with what I thought were trivial illnesses but he said to me: 'There are no trivial illnesses. There are minor illnesses but if the patient has taken the time to come and see you about it, then it is not trivial to them'."

And so say all of us!

• You can watch the Man Cold Video at:www.youtube.com/ watch?v=rXLHWmjA5IE

Man Cold: What you may not know

• The Man Cold is the worst form of cold known to man.

• A Man Cold is more painful than childbirth.

• A Man Cold results when a standard cold infection combines with the male hormone testosterone - so obviously the more testosterone you have, the worse the Man Cold will be.

• A peculiar side effect of the Man Cold is that it can lead to regression to childhood.

• It is nearly always fatal unless long doses of daytime TV are administered, accompanied by constant sympathy and nursing.

• Biscuits, tea, homemade soup, magazines and control of the TV remote are the best Man Cold remedies.

• If you must get out of bed when you have a Man Cold (and it's really not advised), always walk slowly and with a hunched back, letting out low moans as you go.