The smartest winter fashion accessory this year just might be a surgical mask. A new study finds that wearing masks and using alcohol-based hand sanitizers can cut flu symptoms in a community by up to half.

Researchers have long suggested that simply washing your hands is the easiest way for people to help inhibit the spread of the common cold, the flu and other diseases.

The new study is the first of its kind to look at how well this sort of non-pharmaceutical intervention works in controlling the spread of the flu virus in a community setting. Scientists at the University of Michigan School of Public Health studied more than 1,000 student subjects from seven university residence halls during last year's flu season.

"The first-year results (2006-2007) indicate that mask use and alcohol-based hand sanitizer help reduce influenza- like illness rates, ranging from 10 to 50 percent over the study period," said study team member Allison Aiello. She noted, however, that the flu season initially studied was relatively mild, so more research is needed. Results from the second year of the study have yet to be analyzed.

"Nevertheless, these initial results are encouraging since masks and hand hygiene may be effective for preventing a range of respiratory illnesses," Aiello said.

The study, announced today, was funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Participants were randomly assigned to six weeks of wearing a standard medical procedure mask alone, mask use and hand sanitizer use, or a control group with no intervention. The observed reduction in rate of flu-like symptoms remained even after adjusting for gender, race/ethnicity, hand washing practices, sleep quality, and flu vaccination.]

Flu season typically peaks in January or February. Vaccines vary in effectiveness each year because flu viruses are constantly evolving. In a good year, they work somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of the time, according to the CDC.

People who should get vaccinated each year, according to the CDC:

  • Children aged 6 months up to their 19th birthday
  • Pregnant women
  • People 50 years of age and older
  • People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions
  • People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
  • People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu

If you get the flu, prescription antiviral drugs can help keep the viruses from reproducing in your body.