Simple physical measures, such as handwashing and wearing masks, could play a key role in blocking the spread of a flu pandemic, say researchers.
Drugs play an important part in UK planning
The UK government is doubling its stockpile of antiviral medicines in preparation for any future pandemic.
But researchers believe simple, low- cost physical measures should be given higher priority.
The study, led by Australia's Bond University, features online in the British Medical Journal.
Scientists believe a flu pandemic is inevitable at some point in the future. There are also concerns about the spread of potentially fatal respiratory diseases such as Sars.
There is mounting evidence to suggest the use of vaccines and antiviral drugs will be insufficient to interrupt the spread of flu.
The latest research examined 51 studies on the effect of simple physical measures on preventing respiratory infections. Several of the studies focused specifically on the Sars outbreak in South-East Asia in 2003.
The researchers found handwashing and wearing masks, and gloves and gowns all had a positive effect - and were even more effective when combined.
The researchers concluded that, in combination with measures such as isolation of infected patients, they could potentially provide an important defence against a pandemic.
More research needed
They argue that national governments should carry out more research into their use.
Researcher Dr Tom Jefferson said: "Worried about the flu? Then we have some good news for you.
"Wash your hands, and if it is a really bad epidemic avoid contact with people and keep your distance. You may even consider wearing paper masks and disposable gloves. They work.
"Soap and water is cheap and if you come from a poor country it could save your life or your baby's life."
Dr Martin Dawes, a family medicine expert at McGill University, Montreal, said there had been a lack of research into the best way to prevent spread of respiratory pandemics.
Although 336 trials on influenza have been registered on the World Health Organization international clinical trials registry, only three trials are about reducing transmission by keeping a physical distance from patients, or using barrier methods.
He said: "Because pandemic flu is such a potentially catastrophic event, governments worldwide should have commissioned such a review many years ago and not have left it to the academic community to take the lead."
Professor John Oxford, chair of the Hygiene Council and an expert in respiratory diseases based at Queen Mary College School of Medicine, agreed that barrier methods had a role to play.
However, he said the UK government was right to emphasise the primary importance of stockpiling antivirals and vaccines.
"Any suggestion that a bit of handwashing could replace the need for vaccines and antiviral drugs would be dangerous and foolhardy."
The Department of Health is launching a campaign to reduce the spread of colds, flu and other viruses.
The Catch It, Bin It, Kill It campaign emphasises the need to cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough and sneeze, dispose of the tissue as soon as possible after use, and clean your hands at the first available opportunity.