5 ways men and women are different when they get sick

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Researchers highlight how men and women get sick differently

Did you think your husband's medicine might work the same for you as it does for him? The fact is, when a woman gets sick, the same medication a man takes could act entirely different. Illness is different for women than men too, highlighted in a study from Padua University Hospital researchers who say more women's studies are needed to close the gender gap in preventing and treating diseases.

Cancer and other chronic illnesses different for women than men

For decades men have been the primary target for researcher related to chronic illness. But researchers say there are 5 crucial areas that women and men are different when it comes to being sick. They suggest more research is needed to prevent and treat diseases that affect each gender differently

In their study published in the journal Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine" (CCLM), researchers point out medical research over the past 40 years has focused primarily on men.

Giovannella Baggio of Padua University Hospital and her team have pinpointed 5 areas that women and men differ when they get sick that are important targets for making medical treatment more personalized.

Heart disease: Cardiovascular disease is generally considered to strike men more than women. But Baggio and colleagues say because women differ in symptoms they often fail to receive the same tests and interventions as do men. While men have typical chest pain radiating to the left arm, women can experience nausea and lower abdominal pain as a sign of heart attack. Because the symptoms are non-specific, women may not receive procedures such as ECG, lab work or other diagnostic tests or coronary angiography.


Colon cancer: Women tend to get colon cancer later in life, compared to men, yet it is the second most common type of cancer for men and women alike. In women, colon cancer tumors appear in a different location than in men and a woman’s response to chemotherapy is also different.

Liver disease: Hormone levels and genetic make-up that differ between men and women make primary biliary cirrhosis and chronic hepatitis C another illness where men and women get sick differently. The study authors say women are also more often diagnosed with biliary cirrhosis than are men.

Osteoporosis: Men can get osteoporosis, just like women, but the disease is overlooked in men, the authors say. Males are also at higher risk for fractures when they have loss of bone mass that is typically associated just with women following menopause. Osteoporosis may be less frequently diagnosed in men, but it carries a higher mortality rate from fractures, compared to women.

Medications: Men and women don’t respond to medications in the same way. Aspirin and other pharmacologic agents have different side effects between genders from hormonal status, body type and metabolism. The authors write, “…to administer medication safely and effectively, the dosage and duration of treatment must take the patient's gender into account.”

The authors say there are crucial differences in the way men and women get sick, but medical researchers still do not know much about gender-specific differences in illness, symptoms of disease, social and psychological factors and how that affects prevention and treatment of particularly when it comes to disease symptoms, influencing social and psychological factors, and the ramifications of these differences for treatment and prevention.

The research has pinpointed 5 specific areas that men and women are different when they get sick. They suggest more studies that focus on female patients to close the gender gap and understand how to better treat chronic diseases that are not the same for men as women.

Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine. Volume 51, Issue 4, Pages 713–727, ISSN (Online) 1437-4331, ISSN (Print) 1434-6621, DOI: 10.1515/cclm-2012-0849, March 2013

Image credit: Morguefile