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Man flu, explained: Guys may have weaker immune response

As any woman who lives with a man can tell you, she’d almost rather get the flu herself than have him get it — not out of any tender altruism, but because she knows what a big baby he’ll be.

“Where’s my soup?” “I want army men!” “Whaaaaa…”

Is there a real, biological reason why men seem to suffer so? Or are men just illness weenies?

A team from Ghent University in Belgium thinks we men might have a good excuse, that we really do suffer more because women mount a stronger immunological reaction to the flu virus and other illnesses.

Their hypothesis — and that’s all it is for now — is complicated, having to do with the X chromosome (men typically have one – XY — and women two, XX). Differences in the way tiny pieces of X chromosome RNA, the chemical that carries genetic instructions to cells’ protein factories, interact with genes partially accounts for why women live longer than men, and appear to fight sepsis, infection and trauma better than men, the team argues.

It is true that there are immune system differences between men and women. Women, for example, suffer more often from autoimmune diseases and some studies have shown a sexually dimorphic response to infection.

But Don J. Diamond, director of translational vaccine research and professor of virology at City Hope in Duarte, California is very skeptical that flu is much different in men and women.

“If there were any significant differences” in immune response, he asked in an interview with, “then why do we give the same vaccine doses? Childhood vaccines like MMR [measles, mumps, rubella], boys and girls get the same dose and it works for both. Same with the flu vaccine. There has never been a vaccine released for human use that uses a different dose for males or females.”

More likely, he suggested, women just seem to tough out the flu with less whining because of women’s well-known tolerance for pain. “To keep the species going, women have to endure the pain of childbirth,” he explained. That higher threshold might make most women seem like flu Vikings compared to men.

So whether the Ghent scientists are right, or it’s just the female tolerance for misery, we men still have an excuse.

Now, where are those army men?

Follow contributor Brian Alexander on Twitter.