Man Cold: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment

A friend of ours was sick this past weekend. Actually, two friends: a man and his wife. They were supposed to join Jodi and me and two other couples for an evening of dinner and faith-building conversation, but (according to the message we received as the rest of us were gathering), he had the “man version” of the cold she had, so they were unable to come.

The men gathered for dinner immediately fell silent in sympathy and concern. The women laughed. They are not ordinarily so hard-hearted, so I began to wonder: why is the man-cold so misunderstood and easily dismissed by women?

When we returned home, my bride relayed the tale to my second son, Gabe, and that conversation yielded valuable insight into common misperceptions about man-colds.

Jodi (laughing): “She had the same cold that he had!”

Gabe: “That’s not possible. He has a man-cold, and she is not a man.”

Jodi (smiling): “Okay. She had the same SYMPTOMS as he did.”

Gabe: “That’s not true: she wasn’t bedridden.”

Jodi (exasperated): “Look, she was just as sick as he was!”

I was proud of my teenage son. Already at age 16, Gabe has come to understand that there are, in fact, fundamental differences between men and women and how they experience and interact with the world, and his polite but firm insistence that a man-cold is no laughing matter will one day garner his mother’s respect, even if in the moment she wanted to bean him with her Yeti tumbler.

At any rate, these two interactions led me to research and reflect upon the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of the man-cold. Here’s what I discovered.

Perhaps the best summary of the symptoms of a man-cold appears in the classic YouTube video below:

In addition to the typical symptoms of the common cold (runny nose, congestion, fatigue), the victim of the man-cold—invariably men, not women or children—are nearly always bedridden, finding it nearly impossible to rise, and may also experience burning sensations especially in the head; vocal hoarseness, faintness, and strain sometimes experienced by the listener as whining; extreme lethargy and heaviness of limbs; intimations of impending mortality; and an overwhelming desire for maternal care and physical proximity and affection.

The fact that these additional symptoms are so rarely experienced by women does not make them any less real for afflicted men, and this disconnect is the cause of much misdiagnosis, mistreatment, and marital strife, as evidenced by this more recent video. (Warning: What follows includes examples of inappropriate gender-based “humor” and is difficult to watch, but unless we confront the reality of misunderstanding and neglect, we cannot hope to treat man-colds properly.)

Let’s start with the positives, such as the are: the woman in this video is at least minimally responsive to the needs of her spouse and appears to have a sincere desire to keep the household functioning despite her own minor ailment and the absence of her husband’s no-doubt considerable contributions. But from the start, she equates her cold with his, despite the clear difference in symptoms and severity (most obviously, she is vertical; he is not), and the sarcasm and lack of sympathy demonstrated here is disturbing, but unfortunately all too typical.
It turns out that diagnosing a man-cold is actually relatively simple: If the patient is an adult male and has any of the symptoms of a common cold, plus any of the following additional symptoms, he has a man-cold:
  • Inability to rise from bed, couch, or recliner (or in some severe cases, the floor)
  • Inability to change positions without groaning, crying out, or otherwise vocalizing discomfort
  • Rapid fluctuation in felt temperature (“burniness” or chills) resulting in piling up or throwing off covers—again, accompanied by vocal expressions of discomfort
  • Concerns about obscure or unknown diseases, viruses, or parasites
  • Feelings or visions of doom or death
  • Intense limb heaviness, achiness, fatigue, lethargy, work avoidance and antisocial behaviors, depression, unhappiness, acedia, or ennui
  • Deep desire for physical contact (hand-holding, back or head rubs, forehead kisses, and the like) and child-like need for maternal warmth and affection
  • Fluctuating appetite and desire to eat only particular foods associated with past (especially childhood) recoveries
  • Any other manifestation of the victim’s inexplicably faltering body or immune system
Generally, the difficulty is not with the initial diagnosis itself, but with sustained confidence in the diagnosis, since the symptoms are so severe and persistent, and since in most cases the primary caregiver has no firsthand experience with a man-cold and no ability to measure these additional symptoms independently of the patient. 
This is why early diagnosis and treatment is so critically important: a man with an untended man-cold could potentially spiral into a more severe state in which he begins to hallucinate and his ability to gauge the severity of his own illness is compromised.

I would be remiss if I did not at least acknowledge the possibility that some of these additional symptoms experienced by men may, in fact, be psychological. The reasons behind this are hazy, but are likely rooted in the man’s inherent role as provider and protector. Consider: especially in humanity’s early days, men were required to hunt and to kill, to provide for and defend their own lives and the lives of their family with their physical strength and prowess. And it is well known that both predators and enemies target the sick, the injured, and the weak—thus beginning in prehistoric times, men would have lain low at the slightest sign of infirmity, lest they be killed and leave their wife and brood utterly alone and undefended. 

That feeling of vulnerability and mortality is still manifested in today’s men, who are ordinarily bold, robust, strong, striving creatures unaffected by fear, fatigue, or pain. Imagine if you can the emotional impact on that heroic figure of being cut down in his prime by an invisible (microscopic, we now know) enemy and thereby exposed to saber-toothed cats and club-wielding neanderthals intent on dragging away their brides and children to who-knows-what brutal misfortune. That strength of purpose and fear of failure persists today, even in the lowliest pot-bellied office drone, and must not be regarded lightly.


The good news is that treatment of the man-cold is simple: in addition to the steps and precautions one would take with a common cold, you need only supplement with patience, affection, and understanding—and though many people (men and women alike) insist that the man’s mother is the only suitable caregiver in cases of man-cold, this is not true. As awareness of the reality and seriousness of the man-cold spreads, wives can, in fact, become the preferred caregiver—especially for men who have already fathered children and find their mother’s affection for them diminished in favor of her grandchildren.
Wives are, in fact, naturally suited to this role and, when motivated, can be trained as effective man-cold caregivers. First, they have their own peculiar strength that enables them to persevere in loving service even at the cost of their own comfort and wellness. (It is worth noting that this can be a source of added tension in a marriage afflicted by illness, as in the second video above, or in the case of confused husbands who see their wives up and around and naturally assume they feel better: “If you’re sick, take something and lie down! The kids can fend for themselves— it’s good for them!”) Second, they are expert and efficient at taking in the worst in life, transforming it, and pouring it out again again in love (as evidenced by pregnancy and childbirth, leftover night, and their apparently honest affection for snot-crusted children, wilted dandelion bouquets, and abstract crayon drawings).
Advancing the treatment of man-colds requires that wives recognize these inherent strengths and abilities as such and apply them to the men in their lives. This can be challenging, given the difficulty of the caregiver ever truly understanding the magnitude of the patient’s illness in that moment—but it is not impossible. Visualization training can help female caregivers grow in sympathy and patience. Encourage the following visualization exercises:
  • Young Love. Your wife should envision you in your prime or when she first fell madly in love with you and recall how she desired nothing more at that time than to be near you and spend time with you—then awaken and apply that dormant desire to your current illness. Please note that back hair, bald spots, spare tires, and other natural signs of masculine maturity can unfortunately reduce the effectiveness of this approach.
  • Momma’s Here. Your wife should call to mind her affection for your children at there tiniest, cutest, and most vulnerable (or at whatever stage in development appeals most to her maternal instinct), then recall that the child she loves so dearly is a manifestation of her husband’s love for her. She should then recall that, in this moment, he is every bit as vulnerable and helpless as that child and needs her loving care and attention. At all costs, men should resist the urge to spark this maternal instinct in their brides by assuming the fetal position or reverting to crying or other forms of pre-verbal communication. These approaches have been known to backfire.
  • Martha Kent/Nurse of Heroes. Your wife should remember your natural call to protect and provide and envision you as the heroic figure you are meant to be—she need only restore you to health for you to strive and reach that magnificent potential. This approach requires the most imagination and effort on the part of your spouse; if undertaken seriously, it can be effective, but most early trials have resulted in eye-rolling and fits of hysterical laughter, which can be detrimental to the patient’s emotional well-being.
Man-colds are no laughing matter and, to the victims, can seem debilitating or even deadly. However, they are treatable. With further research and understanding, the scourge of man-colds and accompanying sarcasm and ridicule, can be, if not eliminated, at least effectively managed to the benefit of men, marriages, and families everywhere.

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