Ladies, if you’ve had the nagging suspicion that your flu symptoms are more severe than men’s, and that you take longer than them to recover, you may be right. It’s not just because you might be juggling a career with a bigger share of the family responsibilities (stress makes recovery slower) – it’s also physiological.
A study from scientists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests that men may recover more quickly from influenza infections because they produce more of a key lung-healing protein.
The scientists, whose findings are published online in Biology Of Sex Differences, infected live mice and human cells from men with influenza virus, and found that both the male mice and human cells produced more amphiregulin, a growth factor protein important in wound healing. The male mice recovered more quickly, compared to female mice.
Why are men more resistant to the effects of flu?
Associate Professor Sabra Klein, who headed the study, said it could be an evolutionary advantage as males are more frequently wounded in battles for territories, mates and resources. The male sex hormone testosterone may also confer some form of protection against flu – a theory that Assoc Prof Klein’s team is currently studying.
Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases specialist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, has a different take on why gender might play a role when it comes to flu symptoms.
“Women have more robust immune systems and respond more exuberantly with each infection, whereas men have more placid immune systems. But this is a double-edged sword," he said. "While the response blocks the virus, it also injures the person’s tissues and causes greater symptoms (for instance, inflammation) that makes the person feel sicker.”
IS YOUR FAMILY IN PERPETUAL FLU HELL?
You are suddenly hit by chills, body aches and a fever – not a good time to fall sick when the kids have barely recovered from their sniffles. And just a few weeks ago, your husband was stuffing tissue up his nose. It feels like your family is caught in a perpetual flu cycle.
The common cold can also elicit similar symptoms. The differences between the two are slight, with flu signs typically developing abruptly. Also, flu symptoms such as fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headaches and fatigue, are more severe than a cold’s.
“Influenza represents about 50 per cent of those who visit the clinics with an upper respiratory tract infection, while the other 50 per cent are for the cold virus,” said Dr Leong. “The key difference is that a vaccine exists for flu prevention, whereas there is no cold vaccine.”
For women who have work and family duties to take care of, what can they do to minimise catching the bug? And if they do, how can they recover faster and better? Here’s what the experts say.
GET THE FLU JAB FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY
The flu vaccine is your best bet as it is “up to 90 per cent effective and remains the best way to boost flu prevention efforts and to keep yourself healthy,” said Dr Leong.
The jab is especially important for children between the ages of six months and five years, who can suffer an average of six to 12 bouts of cold/flu each year. “This is because in the early stages of childhood, the immune system is weak as it has not been exposed to different viruses to allow the development of the adaptive immune response,” he said.
Seniors are also at risk. In healthy individuals of any age, the impacts of flu are unpredictable – but complication in those aged 65 and above can be “further amplified”. Age also brings with it a “greater susceptibility to infection and reduced capacity to fight against viruses,” said Dr Leong.
In fact, for the elderly, two doses of the flu vaccine each year are recommended, six months apart. Dr Leong cited a recent study by Tan Tock Seng Hospital, where it was found that doing so increased the elderly’s antibody levels to fight against flu by more than 20 per cent, compared to those who only received a single dose.
WEAR MASKS, WASH YOUR HANDS, AND DISPOSE OF USED TISSUE
There’s a reason why doctors advise to wear a mask: Flu can spread through the droplets produced when coughing, sneezing, talking or touching contaminated surfaces within 2m of the infected person. In fact, those with flu can contaminate the air around them simply just by breathing, according to a study by the University of Maryland in Baltimore, US.
Furthermore, masks block off large virus particles exhaled by sick individuals by 25 times, according to a study published in PlosOne. The same study also found that wearing a mask and practising good hygiene can lower your risk of getting infected by up to 75 per cent.
“It is important to realise that this should be complemented with hand washing, as this is still the best way to reduce germs on our hands,” said Dr Leong.
As for those pieces of used tissue, make sure you dispose of them in a bin, preferably one that has a lid, instead of leaving them in your pocket, on the bed or the nightstand. And make sure you keep the bin away from the rest of your family, said Dr Leong.
DON’T PREP FOOD AND USE SEPARATE ITEMS
Not that you’ll be in the mood to cook when you’re down with the bug, but you should also refrain from handling the food in takeaway containers that your family members bring home.
To take it a step further, use separate dishes and cutlery from the rest of your family. If possible, replace yours and your child’s toothbrushes after a bout of flu to help reduce the transmission of viruses, said Dr Leong.
GO AHEAD AND BREASTFEED
“Some mothers may be worried about breastfeeding during a bout of flu for fear of passing on the virus. However, experts revealed that babies do not catch viruses through breast milk. In fact, a mother can pass antibodies to her baby through breastfeeding, which help to build up a child’s immune system in the long run,” said Dr Leong.
USE A HAND SANITISER INSTEAD OF SPRAYING DISINFECTANT AT WORK
The sound of spritzing disinfectant can often be heard in the office, especially when there’s a bug going around. But its effectiveness doesn’t quite match that of other measures such as wiping down frequently touched surfaces, including tables, keyboards and doorknobs, said Dr Leong.
Instead, you’re better off using hand sanitisers frequently. “Studies have also revealed that hand sanitisers with high alcohol concentrations (60 per cent to 95 per cent) are more effective at killing germs than those with a low or zero concentration” said Dr Leong.
DON’T COUNT ON VITAMIN C UNLESS YOU ALREADY HAVE THE FLU
Vitamin C is often touted as a natural cold/flu remedy. But the research data to date has only shown that “Vitamin C is only marginally beneficial when it comes to the common cold," said Dr Bruce Bistrian, chief of clinical nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in an article in Harvard Health Publishing.
And as for their claim to ward off the flu? That doesn’t hold water either, according to the same article.
But it may help if you’ve already caught a flu. “It may help to boost our immune system and reduce the severity of the symptoms, but it does not prevent us from getting the flu,” said Dr Leong. “It has been debunked as an anti-flu medicine and studies have shown it is ineffective, unless you are malnourished.”
The same can be said of zinc, which has often been claimed to ward off the flu and treat its symptoms.