Winter brings more than snow and cold weather—it also brings flu season. And if you’ve ever suffered the runny nose, painful cough, and feverish chills that comes with it, you know that having the flu is inconvenient at best and downright miserable at worst.
And this year’s flu (along with the outbreak of coronavirus) has actually caused such a panic that some stores are even selling out of things like face masks and hand sanitizers, as people rush to protect themselves. But which of those things really work—and what should you really keep at home during this time of year?
We asked a medical doctor to weigh in on the matter below with the most common flu season essentials and how important each one is.
1. Face masks
What it does: Covers coughs and sneezes to prevent large particles from spreading
What it doesn’t do: Prevent you from breathing in the flu virus
Yes, face masks might be selling out everywhere thanks to the fear of both influenza and coronavirus but no, they probably aren’t as effective as you think. “Face masks can help protect others from large particle coughs/sneezes when a patient has the flu, but they’re minimally protective to avoid getting sick,” Dr. Ruth Brocato, family medicine physician at Mercy Medical Center, explains.
Other infectious disease experts agree, warning that face masks actually become less effective the longer you wear them since they become wet from your breath. (In fact, there’s been a whole slew of articles popping up, cautioning against face masks as an effective method of preventing viruses.) So wear one if you’d like (it can add some level of protection to you and the people around you) but know that it isn’t an end-all-be-all solution by any means.
While most of the top-rated masks on Amazon are already sold out, these ones from Target are another popular pick, with a nearly perfect rating on Target’s website.
2. Hand sanitizer
What it does: Kills some germs and is a good alternative to hand washing if necessary
What it doesn’t do: Kills all germs
There’s a lot of debate about whether or not hand sanitizer really protects against the flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it does—if you use it correctly. “If soap and water are not available, using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol can help you avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others,” the CDC’s website advises, adding the disclaimer that “alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of microbes on hands in some situations, but sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs.”
The secret to making your hand sanitizer work for you is making sure you use enough of it, says both the CDC and Dr. Brocato. “Rub the gel over all the surfaces of your hands and fingers until your hands are dry. This should take around 20 seconds,” she recommends, noting that you should check the instructions first to see exactly how much you should squirt into your palm.
What it does: Acts as a cover for coughs and sneezes and is used for blowing your nose
What it doesn’t do: Prevent or cure any flu symptoms
If you’re one of the unlucky ones to end up with the flu—or even just a bad cold—tissues are about to be your best friend. Not only are they a must for blowing your nose, of course, but they’re also necessary for proper cough/sneeze etiquette (a.k.a. always cover your mouth and nose with one!). Of all the tissues we’ve tested, we like Puffs Ultra Soft the best because, as the name suggests, they’re super soft and gentle on your nose. Plus, they’re incredibly durable so they won’t tear easily when you’re using them.
4. Nasal spray
What it does: Flushes out irritants, temporarily clears congestion, and moisturizes your nose
What it doesn’t do: Permanently clear up a stuffy nose or add any protection
Being able to breathe out of your nose is one of those things you take for granted—until you come down with the flu. Dr. Brocato recommends a nasal saline spray to help with that, like this drug-free one from Arm & Hammer (it’s made with just water, salt, and baking soda). Customers like that it provides almost instant relief and clears up congestion while also adding moisture so your nose doesn’t get too dry and irritated.
PSA: Saline spray is not the same as a neti pot, which is something that the FDA warns can actually increase the risk of infection if used incorrectly. A neti pot and other nasal irrigation systems rinse out your nose via delicate nasal passages (hence why they must be used exactly as instructed) whereas a spray is simply spritzed into your nose for moisture and surface clearing.
5. Clorox wipes
What it does: Disinfects the surfaces in your home
What it doesn’t do: Kills 100 percent of all germs
Think of all of the things you touch in the outside world that could contain the flu virus—then think about all of the things you touch inside your home immediately afterward. Yikes. An important step in preventing the flu is keeping your house sanitized and disinfected, which you can do with antibacterial wipes like these popular Clorox ones. However, according to the CDC, you’re likely using them wrong. Apparently most people don’t use enough wipes to actually kill the majority of germs (whoops). The CDC explains, “Disinfection usually requires the product to remain on the surface for a certain period of time (e.g. letting it stand for 3 to 5 minutes).” A.k.a. you’ll need a lot more than one little Clorox wipe to keep your home safe.
What it does: Gives you an accurate reading of your temperature
What it doesn’t do: Prevent or treat your fever
One of the tell-tale symptoms of the flu? A fever. And while you might be able to feel like your temperature is higher than normal (hello, sweats, chills, and a fiery forehead), you won’t know for sure unless you have a thermometer, which is something you should always have in your medicine cabinet. This one—which has nearly 3,000 positive reviews on Amazon—is praised for being both accurate and quick and easy to use (it gives you a reading in just seconds!).
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.