How to care for a loved one with the flu - without catching it

While not a part of official government recommendations, wearing surgical masks could be another protection for those caring for loved ones with the flu.

Tracy Masters Ray was among the thousands of South Carolinians whose New Year kicked off with a visit from the flu bug, which was so widespread locally last week that it helped Charleston earn WebMD's ranking as fourth-sickest city in the United States.

Ray's brother had spent New Year's Eve with her family, but woke up the next day sick and tested positive for the flu. Ray, a part-time real estate attorney with three young children, almost thought her family was out of the woods when her 7-year-old daughter woke up on Jan. 4 with a fever of 103 and she, too, tested positive for the flu.

Determined not to let her 3-year-old daughter and 12-month-old son get sick, Ray quarantined the 7-year-old in her bedroom and took on the responsibility of being the sole caretaker in the hopes of keeping her husband Jason Ray well.

"Every time I left the room (where the 7-year-old was quarantined), I scrubbed my hands and used plenty of disinfectant. ... I probably went overboard, but so far, everybody's good," says Ray.

Ray also credited drinking ample amounts of water, a tip she learned from a teacher long ago, and exercising to keeping her healthy.

Unbeknownst to Ray, she followed some of the main tips that government health officials outline for those caring for flu sufferers to prevent catching the virus themselves.

The flu.gov website suggests that caregivers create a "sick room" to isolate the flu sufferer and wash hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer, particularly after contact with the sick person. The website also urged limiting the care giving to one person in the house.

Another tip for those caring for a sick child is to hold the child with his or her chin on caregivers shoulders so that the child doesn't cough directly into his or her face.

Other tips include keeping surfaces disinfected, disposing of used tissues, washing linens, dishes and eating utensils thoroughly and keeping the home ventilated as much as possible.

Roper Hospital Emergency Department physician Dr. Francis "Anc" Clarkson says he often gets questions from flu patient caregivers about how they can avoid catching the virus.

"I discuss all of the above (mentioned) with them and stress that it starts with good hand washing," says Clarkson, adding a few more suggestions.

As for encouraging a sick person to cover his or her nose and mouth while sneezing or coughing, Clarkson says its best to do so into a tissue. If a tissue is not available, then the sick person should sneeze or cough into the crook of his or her elbow, which is called the "Dracula sneeze."

As for washing linens, dishes and eating utensils, Clarkson says there has been "some overvigilance about this."

"For example, there are no proven recommendations at present to quarantine or separate linens, dishes or eating utensils after they are used," says Clarkson.

"Current recommendations for clothes from a sick person: use regular laundry detergent, and tumble dry on a hot dryer setting. It's OK to wash flu patients' clothes with other people's clothes. Current recommendations for dishes and eating utensils is to wash with normal dish washing soap and/or place in the dishwasher."

Meanwhile, Clarkson says while good hydration may not necessarily prevent a flu infection, it is a "critical piece of treatment" once someone gets it.

And while many tout using Tamiflu to lessen the duration of the flu, several locals responding to a recent Facebook post by The Post and Courier are enlisting the help of an old-time remedy to prevent or ease the flu: elderberry syrup or lozenges.

Orangetheory Fitness owner Mary Ann Richardson Stisher and Holy Cow Yoga Owner Trace "Sahaja" Bonner both swear by it as a preventive.

Pam Fischette of Whole Foods Market in Mount Pleasant says the store has had "a big run on elderberry syrup ... along with all of our immune-boosting herbs" recently.

A visit to the store Thursday showed an ample supply of the supplement.

Former local TV reporter Tracy Amick Peer, who is 38 weeks pregnant, says she, her husband and 12-month-old daughter are taking elderberry syrup because her "entire neighborhood" in Atlanta has the flu.

"I know more people who have had the flu the past few weeks than not and, with kids back in school this week, we're pretty much avoiding large play dates until post-baby," says Amick, who takes two teaspoons a day while her 12-month-old takes one.

For centuries, the deep purple berries from the elder tree has been used in folk medicine to treat influenza, colds and sinusitis. Small studies have shown that elderberry extract seems to offer "efficient, safe and cost-effective" treatment.

In a review article published in the January 2014 "Journal of Dietary Supplements," scientists at Natural Standard Research Collaboration examined three human trials on elderberries. The trials involved a total of 151 patients taking syrups or lozenges.

The scientists gave the berry a grade of "B," denoting "good scientific evidence" for treatment of influenza, but more research is needed, particularly in comparison to modern flu medications, such as Tamiflu, and why it is effective.

One of the main brands, Sambucol syrup, costs about $13 for a four-ounce bottle.

ER doctor Clarkson agrees that elderberry, in some limited small studies, has shown "some promise in making people with the flu feel better."

"There is no evidence, at present, that elderberry prevents the flu. While the elderberry issue has gained some traction within social media, I'd say the current summary is this. First, there is no evidence that it prevents the flu. And second, the evidence that it helps people with the flu is weak."

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.