Sex and inflammation in respiratory diseases: a clinical viewpoint

Biol Sex Differ. 2013 Sep 1;4:16. doi: 10.1186/2042-6410-4-16. eCollection 2013.


This review discusses sex differences in the prognosis of acute or chronic inflammatory diseases. The consequences of severe inflammation vary in relation to sex, depending on illness duration. In the majority of acute diseases, males present higher mortality rates, whereas continuous chronic inflammation associated with tissue damage is more deleterious in females. The recruitment of cells, along with its clinical expression, is more significant in females, as reflected by higher inflammatory markers. Given that estrogens or androgens are known to modulate inflammation, their different levels in males and females cannot account for the sexual dimorphism observed in humans and animals from birth to death with regard to inflammation. Numerous studies evaluated receptors, cytokine production, and clinical outcomes in both animals and humans, revealing that estrogens clearly modulate the immune response, but the results are contradictory and difficult to link to hormone concentrations. Even in prepubescent children, the presentation of acute pneumonia or chronic diseases mimics the adult pattern. Several genes located on the X chromosome have been shown to encode molecules involved in inflammation. Moreover, 10% to 15% of the genes from silenced X chromosome may escape inhibition. Females are also a mosaic of cells with genes from either paternal or maternal X chromosome. Therefore, polymorphism of X-linked genes would result in the presence of two cell populations with distinct regulatory arsenals, providing females with greater diversity to fight against infectious challenges, in comparison with the uniform cell populations in hemizygous males. The similarities observed between males and Turner syndrome patients using an endotoxin stimulation model support the difference in gene expression between monosomy and disomy for the X chromosome. Considering the enhanced inflammation in females, cytokine production may be assumed to be higher in females than males. Even if all results are not clear-cut, nonetheless, many studies have reported higher cytokine levels in both male humans and animals than in females. High IL-6 levels in males correlated with poorer prognosis and shorter longevity. A sound understanding of the basic regulatory mechanisms responsible for these gender differences may lead to new therapeutic targets.

Keywords: Cytokines; Hormones; Respiratory inflammation; Sex; X chromosome.

Publication types

  • Review