Between COVID-19, RSV, flu and the havoc that candy can wreak on children’s teeth, some parents may be tempted to skip Halloween altogether. Yet the same principles for managing physical and mouth safety can help us cope with virus precautions while still having a happy Halloween.
As a mom and a dentist, my concern for healthy trick-or-treating goes hand in hand with considerations for keeping healthy mouths. Just consider: One in three third-grade students in New York City has untreated tooth decay. Routine preventative exams were greatly delayed during the pandemic, so chances are high that many kids across the nation are behind on their oral health care.
Add to that the problem that many kids have with obesity as too many of them, wed to unhealthy diets, seem to be setting themselves up for lives plagued by type 2 diabetes.
Yet tempting as it may be, the answer isn’t to cancel the candy.
Here’s how I try to balance letting the kids have fun with the importance of keeping healthy mouths.
First of all, tell yourself: This doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Parents have the ability to make sure the spookiness of the holiday stays in the imagination.
In regard to viruses, the fact that Halloween is largely an outdoor holiday is a good thing. Viruses have a hard time spreading in open spaces. While continuing to deal with COVID-19 variants is not ideal, the good news is that most children continue to have less severe cases than adults; sometimes, they have no symptoms or lingering health effects at all. While perfect prevention is impossible, incorporating masks into your kids’ Halloween costumes could actually help reduce exposure to droplets from the coughing and sneezing that spreads RSV and flu. There are some very cute choices!
If they want to be especially careful, kids can also carry hand sanitizer or wipes to use during candy collection. Or put some gloves on the kiddos in colors that match their outfits.
The normal trick-or-treat principles of accompanying children as they go door to door or, with teenagers, knowing where, when and with whom, can be expanded for virus management. Parents can choose another family to do the rounds. Have a conversation in advance about socially distancing from other groups. This way, kids can still see friends but in a way that’s manageable for trying to prevent virus transmission.
Just as we talk to our kids about not running into the street, remind them to stay with their group and not run up to other kids, and to wait their turn to approach a door instead of mingling in a group.
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As with so many things, the key is moderation and pragmatism.
As for staving off cavities while consuming candy, here’s how we handle it in my home. We allow our kids to enjoy their candy for the entire week, up to two pieces a day. After we count up the candy for the week, we donate the rest to Halloween Candy Buy Back, which benefits our military. My kids get to enjoy their loot, practice generosity, participate in a great cause and avoid overeating candy.
I don’t insist that they brush their teeth after every piece, either. My simple hack is to encourage my kids to chew sugar-free gum after eating candy. Gum with the American Dental Association Seal of Acceptance has been evaluated for efficacy by an independent body of scientific experts, and it’s certified for doing one or more of the following: “reducing plaque acids, promoting remineralization of tooth enamel, reducing cavities and/or reducing gingivitis,” according to the ADA Council on Scientific Affairs.
I’m a member of the American Dental Association. I know that by activating and increasing the flow of saliva, chewing sugarless gum helps reduce plaque acid, strengthen teeth and reduce tooth decay. Chewing sugar-free gum even shows similar benefits to cavity prevention as brushing with fluoride toothpaste, research conducted by the dentistry faculty at King’s College London found. This makes it even weirder that it’s stocked in the candy aisle, but makes it more convenient for grabbing a pack when purchasing candy for trick-or-treaters.
The American Association of Pediatric Dentists recommends that children receive oral exams and a tooth cleaning every six month, but a third of parents say COVID-19 has made it harder to get preventative care for their children, according to a national poll conducted by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan in 2021. But don’t give up trying to get your kids in for their exams.
Children need all the help they can get when it comes to oral health. Following common sense guidelines can help everyone have a happy and healthy Halloween — even children of dentists.
Weintraub is a mother and dentist who blogs at The Mommyhood Chronicles. She is a member of the American Dental Association.