Page last updated at 14:01 GMT, Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Could evolution make men more prone to coughs and colds?

A man blowing his nose...
Men may deal with infection differently

Men may have a weaker immune system and could be more vulnerable to so-called 'man flu', scientists propose.

Evolutionary factors and hormonal differences may make males more susceptible to infection than females, says a Cambridge University team.

Their theory, outlined in a scientific journal, suggests there is a trade-off between a strong immune system and reproductive success.

But a leading flu expert says there is no difference in men's immunity.

Previous experiments have found differences in the ability of females and males to deal with infection.

Across a range of animal species, males tend to be the 'weaker sex' in terms of immune defences, says the Cambridge team.

This is usually explained by the difference in hormones.

High testosterone levels, they say, lead to more coughs and colds.

Let's mate

The study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal, investigated the reason for these differences.

Children get colds, men get flu, women get on with it

Dr Olivier Restif, one of the authors, said: "If you assume that males are more exposed to infection, then can natural selection influence that process?"

To find out, scientists developed a mathematical model that highlighted the role of other factors, like ecology and epidemiology, in shaping the immune systems of men and women.

"If males are more exposed to infection than females (for behavioural reasons for example), it is possible to see them evolve lower immuno-competence than females," the authors wrote.

Risk taking

In particular, they found that men with a predilection to risky, dangerous behaviour who have to compete for access to females would be more open to infections.

But John Oxford, Professor of virology at the University of London, disagrees.

He says his team at the University of London deliberately infected men and women with the flu virus.

He says there was no noticeable difference between their recovery times or their immunity.

"But the women did complain more," he added.

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